Taming Terrific Toddlers

Taming Terrific Toddlers

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Episode 175 – Caring for toddlers is one of the more challenging stages of early childhood development. In this episode, we chat with Raelene Ostberg, Founder of Thriving Together, about how toddlers are often difficult to work with because they are misunderstood. She shares her tips for reframing our approach of engaging with toddlers to work with them in a constructive way. This is a MUST listen if you’re working with toddlers in any capacity as an educator or a parent!


Episode Transcript

Raelene OSTBERG:

If they can’t stop their own behavior, if they have difficulty inhibiting themselves, then what can we do? How can we work with the toddler to get them to do what we want them to do? And therein lies the strategy.


Raelene, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Hi! Thank you for having me, Ron. So excited to be here today and talk about my very favorite topic!


It’s our pleasure having you, Raelene. To our audience: we are lucky today to have on our show Raelene Ostberg. She is the founder of Thriving Together and also an experienced presenter of all things early-childhood education. Delighted to have you on the show, Raelene. As always, let’s start off learning about how you got to where you are and why you’re passionate about early-childhood education and what you’re doing in this very important field.


Thank you, thank you. So, I was a super good parent; I was amazing. The problem was, Ron, I didn’t have any kids. I was absolutely convinced my child was going to listen; my child wouldn’t be throwing those tantrums in the grocery store like the other kids, because I was going to be so good, right? When I said it, my child would know I meant it.

And then I had my first one-year-old. I will never forget how difficult those years were. So, I told her… she’s sitting, eating, throws food on the floor. And I looked at her, I said, “No.” And she gave me that look – you know what look I’m talking about, right? People working with toddlers giggle in my sessions because they know that look like of, like, “What?”

So, she did it again. And I looked at her and I walked a little closer and I said, “No.” And she did it again. So I walked even closer, I pointed at her, I got my worse face on and I said, “Don’t you dare.” And she did it again and laughed the biggest belly laugh. And that day, I was so stressed out. And I thought, “Why did I get the naughty one? How come mine? Like, why?” And I felt incompetent as a parent, and I didn’t know what to do. I was just kind of stuck.

And so I really decided from that experience that if I could do anything to support other parents through this journey, really high-stress and not a lot of rewards – little toddlers don’t say, “Thank you, thank you for being such a great parent.” There’s a lot of hugs and smiles and things, but they can also be really frustrating for you. So I thought, “You know what? If I can help others doing this really stressful work, then I’ve made a big difference.”

So, fast-forward, years later, I realize parenting isn’t the hardest job in the world. It’s being a childcare provider. Early-childhood educators don’t have one toddler or two toddlers. They might have twelve toddlers in a classroom. And so I’ve really seen since my first presentation back in 2007 at a conference up to today the impact you can have when you’re supporting people doing the most important job. They’re setting kids on the trajectory for success for the rest of their life. And it starts in those first couple years.

So, bring to today, I do this full time now and I vlog and I work at doing conferences and staff development days and those kinds of things, full-time supporting those doing the most important work, raising our next generation.


Awesome. And I can certainly relate to that toddler story of throwing food. It’s kind of like, the more you tell them “No”, the more fun the game is, right?


Yeah! Because what did they love more than anything in the world? You! So, anything that gets your attention is going to grow. It’s just the reality of toddlerhood.


And so I think a big part of this – and part of the conversation you’re having around toddlers – is that oftentimes as adults we misunderstand toddlers. And they think very differently than we do. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means? And oftentimes we refer to toddlers, as well as the “terrible two’s” when they’re at that age. How can we think about that a little bit differently?


Well, my very first presentation was taming those terrific toddlers. I’m still doing it today. People absolutely love it. And the reason is because we acknowledge toddlers are these magical, wonderful little bundles. They make us laugh. They’re full of energy and joy. It’s so great, right? Then why is it if you are parenting a toddler, you are 50% more likely to be depressed? It’s difficult.

So, I think the terrible twos comes from the fact that it’s difficult to care for these wonderful little humans because they don’t have any empathy. They don’t stop moving. They can’t share. So, they might hit, kick, bite, scream to get their needs met. They take toys, throw toys and have all these behaviors that really frustrate us as adults.

So, I think, yes, we can call it the “terrible two’s”, but that’s about our experience trying to care for these little beings. The reality is it’s hard to be a two-year-old [child], too. The two-year-olds are not trying to be difficult. That toddler doing that, there’s a reason she’s doing that. There’s something going on behind it but it’s not to “get me”. How do I know this? Because she doesn’t have the upper-level thinking skills. Her neocortex is not fully developed.

So, these young toddlers, they just do… everything in their bodies is like, “Do it! Do it!” That’s really difficult for us. But imagine: you go on a vacation. You wake up. There’s this whole exciting, different world for you to explore. And everybody around you keeps telling you to sit still, don’t move, to listen. I mean, how many times do we stop them from doing something they really want to do or try and get them to do something they don’t want to do? It happens constantly, especially in group settings where you’re trying to balance the needs of all the different kids in your care.

So, really, when it comes to toddlers they are terrific. But if we don’t have the strategies and tools it can be quite a difficult experience. So, that’s where the educators come in, right, with those tips and tools and strategies that really do work because, as you acknowledged, “No” doesn’t work. So, what can we do?


Yeah. So, that brings us to the next question, which is, what do we do? If you’re in the classroom, as you said, working maybe with multiple toddlers at a time, that’s why we have so much respect for our early-childhood educators out there – especially if we’ve had the opportunity to be responsible for a toddler ourselves – what can we do differently?


Well, the first thing is to realize how a toddler is wired. So, if everything in their body says, “Do it”, then trying to stop them from doing something is where some of the problem comes from. So, I want to tell you that Zero To Three [early-childhood advocacy group] did a study of adults caring for young children. And 56% believe that kids under [age] 3 can inhibit their behavior. Meaning, if I forbid you from doing something – if I forbid the toddler, “Don’t touch that” – that they actually have the capacity to stop themselves.

It’s not true! That kind of self-regulation is not fully developed until, well, a longtime later, but certainly not into the three’s. So, if they can’t stop their own behavior, if they have difficulty inhibiting themselves, then what can we do? How can we work with the toddler to get them to do what we want them to do? And therein lies the strategy.

So, when you’re working with toddlers I really feel like, number one, love them. If they feel connected and engaged, if they’re doing novel and interesting things with you, they’re not misbehaving. Number two: remember, it’s really hard to be a toddler because they are English language learners. So, here they are, they don’t know all of our language. It’s like me when I go to Spain: I’ve studied a lot of Spanish, but I go to Spain and people are talking really fast. And maybe I can pick out a word or two but I’m really having difficulty understanding the whole concept that you’re trying to teach.

So, how can we work with toddlers who are in this different country? They’re trying to figure out the customs at childcare, the customs at home, the customs at grandma’s house, what the rules are. And how do we help them really be able to follow those rules? So, love them; acknowledge how hard it is to stop behavior; and figure out where you want them to do.

So, let me give you an example, Ron. So, right now, if you’re listening to the Podcast, or, Ron, you’re here with me, I want you to just take a deep breath. And I’m going to tell you to imagine something. So, no matter what, imagine exactly what I say: “The child is not jumping on the bed. The dog is not chasing the cat. The ball is not bouncing.” Ha-ha! So, what happens? What happened for you, Ron? Were you able to imagine exactly what I was saying?


I was. It gave me a sense of calm because I felt like everything was just sitting still.


So, basically what happens generally is you see, I say, “The child is not jumping on the bed.” And the very first thing you see is the child jumping on the bed. And then you undo it – you think, “No, no, not jumping on the bed, standing on the floor,” or something like that. So, it takes our brain at a minute to be able to kind of switch over. Well, for us, obviously, it happens almost instantly. That’s why you were able to find calm in that moment.

But if you’re a toddler that doesn’t happen instantly. If everything in your body is saying, “Climb on that table,” then [someone says] “Don’t climb on the table,” that it is not going to make sense for you. So, you end up climbing on the table because that’s what you’re hearing. That’s what you’re visualizing, is “Climb on the table”.

So, the biggest trick is to figure out what you want the child to do instead. So, I’ll give you an example: Here’s a child, they go to stand on the chair and you would say, “Bottom on the chair.” And you might even show them because, remember, they’re English language learners. So, you’re going show them, “Oh, here’s your bottom. Put it on the chair.” Make sure you get their attention. Make sure they’re looking right at you. Say it again: “Bottom, chair.”

Take a deep breath because what’s going to happen is, those words you’re sending them, they’re just symbols, right? They’re symbols that we’ve made for… we have the picture in our head of what we’re saying. We have to wait for them to decode what we’re saying and get the picture in their own head. You’ll see it – it comes on like a light bulb.

So, one parent found they were trying this; they were repeating it slowly, giving the toddler’s brain a chance to catch up. And the toddler still didn’t seem to be listening. So, they got their attention one more time, looked right at him and did the biggest thing that can help toddlers: a gesture.

So, she looked at her toddler right in her eyes and said, “Down, Down,” and took her hands and literally showed the hands moving down. She couldn’t believe it – the toddler looked right at her and sat down. So, once that toddler was able to understand the message that was being sent to them, they cooperated. They just weren’t understanding the message.


Yeah, that’s interesting. And I actually did first picture a child jumping on the bed and a dog chasing a cat and a ball bouncing and then I had to undo it. But like you said, it was kind of like an instant thing. And I’ve also had the experience of… every once in a while I ask my toddler to do something and then he just listens and does it. It’s like this moment of, like, “What just happened?” It’s probably me, like, accidentally making gestures in recommending what to do instead of what not to do. So, that’s interesting.


Yeah, so, maybe the message was clear. You made the message clear so he was able to understand. So, we have to assume as adults that they didn’t understand the message. And the reason is because, Ron, if you believe your child is not listening to you because he’s doing it to get at you or trying to get back at you or he’s just a defiant little guy, you’re going to want to fight him.

Dr. Dan Siegel [in his book] No-Drama Discipline talks about that. He calls it “poking the lizard”. So, imagine the reptilian part of your brain, that eat-or-be-eaten part of your brain. That’s when I was looking at my daughter and pointing at her and saying, “No,” that’s engaging that fight-or-flight part of her. And so she’s going to want to fight me. So, you don’t want to get in a fight with toddlers. They’re ever persistent. You really don’t want to fight with them.

So, here’s my one-year-old. She throws food on the floor; she’s looking at me. So, think of her as a scientist. She throws food on the floor. I say, “No,” and my face turns red. And she goes, “Oh! Woah!” I mean, she was probably testing gravity. “What do peas look like when they fall on the floor compared to your milk?” She’s testing her environment just like she’s supposed to. And then I say, “No!” and my face turns red. So, she’s, like, “Whoa, that’s interesting. I throw food on the floor and my mom’s face turns red. I wonder what will happen if I do it again?”

So, she does it again and my face turns redder! And she thinks it’s so funny, right? She’s just, like, “This is the best game ever!” because she doesn’t have empathy. So, she can’t put herself in my position. She does not have the higher-level thinking skills to put herself in my perspective. She can’t just even know mad is bad. To her, feelings are just feelings. She feels them; she’s full of those feelings; she reacts.

So, you have to believe that your son is just not understanding the message so that you will repeat the message, stay calm, get down at your child’s level, show him what it is you’re trying to say. And the biggest thing, Ron: out-persist. So, if that child’s going to get on the table and they try and try and I put him down and calm down and finally I give up, uh oh, that means the behavior will repeat because it worked. They were able to get on the table. So, if you really don’t want that toddler to ever be on the table, then you never let him on the table – never, not ever. Which is exhausting; which is why we’re also tired when we’re caring for these young ones.


Totally. So, these are some really great tips. And one thing I love about doing the Preschool Podcast is, I personally learn something every time, which I’ve done here today. What other resources might you recommend for parents or early-childhood educators who want to deepen their knowledge about working with toddlers?


Well, you can never learn too much. I have been studying this since 2001 and I’d like to think of a child as a puzzle. There are all these pieces of the puzzle. And the more pieces you get the more clear the picture becomes. And you need a clear picture so [that] you know how to adapt for that child and work with that child to help them be successful.

So, I love… there’s a couple great resources. One is www.ZeroToThree.org – I literally go there weekly. Another one is the [Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning]. They have these great articles that really show, how do you help build those self-regulation skills? How do you help these toddlers learn about our world, that we don’t hit when we get mad? Because you know some adults still hit when they get mad. So, it’s not a given that they’re going to learn this. We need to teach them. And so those are a couple great resources.

I actually do a vlog. So, I do live on YouTube, every week, tips and tools to help young kids be successful so that I can support childcare providers and parents in their most important role. And so you can go there. And then I put the video on the blog. I put some tips and tools on the blog that’s on my website, so you can go to my website. And I’m developing that more and more every week.

I have literally dedicated my life now to supporting those raising our next generation. You know why? Because they are setting the trajectory for the rest of that child’s life. So, it’s really critical work, as you know – you’ve dedicated yourself to it. HiMama is bringing great podcasts [and] wonderful resources to parents and childcare providers, early-childhood teachers, etc., every single week, all the way up to leadership. I love your podcast because you reach such a range of people doing this important work.


Thank you! And we’re all in this together. There’s so much more work to be done and so much more learning that we can always do, like you said. You mentioned a few resources there, including your website. What’s the your URL for that website, if our listeners want to check it out?


It’s www.Thriving-Together.com. There’s two in particular that you’re going to want for toddlers: one of them, one of the blogs, is, “Diffusing Nighttime Stress”, and the other one is, “Getting Toddlers To Listen”. What you have there are two visual tools and then an explanation of how to use those. Those are really important because, again, they’re English language learners. They don’t understand a lot of what we’re saying.

So, it gives you the pictures that you can show them. “First we take a nap and then we’re going to play!” And then you show the picture: “First take a nap, then play,” and they go, ”Oh, okay!” Then they understand that the nap’s not going to last forever and [that] something fun is coming after [the] nap. And then they’re more likely to cooperate if they know something’s coming. So, “First, clean up. Then we’re going to play.”; “First, brush your teeth, then you go to bed.” So, those visual tools are on those two blogs. And people have really found those to be quite useful.


Cool. First thing I’m doing after this podcast: checking those blog posts. We could always use some more tips to diffuse night nighttime stress, that is for sure. We’re sure there’s a lot of other people out there, as well. Raelene, it’s been wonderful having you with us today on the Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.


Thank you! You know what? My business is called Thriving Together because we literally are more together. So, thanks for bringing me to the Podcast. I really look forward to hearing what you have coming up next in the future, Ron!


Thanks, Raelene!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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