Shaping Toddler Behavior

Three toddlers sit side-by-side in front of a pile of toys. One tries to take a toy airplane from the middle child.
Christopher Futcher/iStock

How can you teach your children what it means to be attentive? Whether it's of their surroundings, the needs of others or in the attention they're seeking for themselves, help them to focus on what's in front of them.

Time Out In

Timeouts have been my family's discipline strategy for most of our parenting and foster-parenting years. In our home, we've had a timeout chair, a timeout step, a timeout mat and other timeout locations. But recently I discovered the effectiveness of "time-ins." The concept is based on spending time with the child instead of isolating him or her.

A few weeks ago, our 3-year-old foster daughter was in a really bad mood. She has a quick temper, which had landed her in timeout a number of times that day. After seeing no change in her behavior, I decided to give time-in a try. No sooner did the thought cross my mind than I heard her screaming loudly in the living room.

I picked up my sobbing child and sat her on a comfortable chair beside me. I said, "Sweetie, you are going to sit by me for five minutes. There are books here that you can choose to look at, or you can just sit."

She defiantly crossed her arms and pouted, but after a short time, she picked up the first book. After five minutes were up, I gave her the OK to go play, but she just wanted to sit beside me and look at books. And to my surprise, there were no more tantrums for the rest of the day.

—Adelle Norg

Time for Two

Afternoons were rough. After I put my newborn down for a nap, I often struggled to keep my wound-up 3-year-old son quietly occupied so his sibling could sleep. Then one afternoon I pulled out a couple of teacups, saucers, napkins and small spoons. I asked my son to help me set up, and we sat down to chat over tea and small sandwiches. It went so well that we continued doing this every afternoon. It became a welcome break for both of us and gave my son the time he needed with me, which made him calmer for the rest of the afternoon.

—Alyssa Johnston

Wait Your Turn

As a former school psychologist, I frequently used the phrase "First ___; then ____" with students. It gave students structure, helping them know what to expect and reducing their number of requests.

So I tried it with my toddler. I acknowledged what she wanted and told her what had to happen first. Instead of just asking her to wait, I'd say, "First I need to feed your baby brother; then we can work on coloring valentines."

This reduced the number and frequency of her requests. She also learned that sometimes she couldn't immediately get what she wanted.

— Lauren Gaines

Positive Attention

Often moms and dads encourage toddlers to show off new skills because parents are excited about the milestones their children reach. Prompting them to display their newly acquired ability is natural, but excessive enthusiasm may convey the message that showing off is the best way to gain positive attention.

Avoid praising children only for things they do to perform. Remember to celebrate accomplishments such as sitting still, listening attentively, sharing with another child or demonstrating patience. Giving attention for positive actions helps children learn appropriate behavior.

— Sandy Broome

Airplane Watching

A giant, blue-bellied plane landed with a rumble. “Did you see that one?” I asked. Three-year-old Will shook his head no.

The restaurant’s enormous glass window offered a panoramic view of two runways. Another plane soared by. “Did you see that?” I exclaimed.

“Where?” By the time Will looked up from his plate of spaghetti and meatballs, the plane was gone.

“There’ll be others,” I assured him. Just then a jet readied for takeoff. “Will, see the orange plane?” I pointed. Will nodded, and I continued, “It’s revving its engines, picking up speed and is now in the air.” “Wow!” he exclaimed, but he wasn’t looking at the jet. He was looking at the highway below.

“Those are trucks, not planes,” I ex-plained.

The next plane came in for a landing, so I lifted Will’s chin. “Here it comes.” The first time he looked too high, then too low.

As the next plane landed, he said, “Look, Mommy, no hands,” and slurped his pasta.

Will was weepy by the time we left. “How come I didn’t get to see the planes?”

Day by day, God reveals His plans for me, but too often, like Will, I let distractions and busyness keep me from seeing Him. Of course, Will had a better excuse for his inability to see planes than I had for not following God. Most young children have a difficult time tracking things such as airplanes when they are in the distance, but I couldn’t answer his question with a lecture on cognitive ability.

All I could say was, “Maybe you’ll see them next time.”

— Laura Sassi

The compiled article "Shaping Toddler Attention" first appeared on FocusOnTheFamily.com (2017). "Time Out In"  and "Time for Two" first appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. "Wait Your Turn" first appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. "Positive Attention" first appeared in Focus on Your Child Early Stages, February/March 2007 newsletter. "Airplane Watching" first appeared in Focus on Your Child Early Stages, May/June 2007 newsletter. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

"Shaping Toddler Behavior" compiled article © 2017 by Focus on the Family. "Time Out In" © 2017 by Adelle Norg. "Time for Two" © 2017 by Alyssa Johnston. "Wait Your Turn" © 2017 by Lauren Gaines. "Positive Attention" © 2007 by Sandy Broome. "Airplane Watching" © 2007 by Laura Sassi. Used by permission.

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