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Montessori At Home: Communicating With Your Toddler

by Shunshun Cui, Toddler Directress

I remember when my oldest son David was a hungry toddler. I asked him if he wanted a banana or an apple for his snack one day. He chose the apple. I gave him one, and he started to cry and yelled that he didn’t want it. I asked why, and didn’t get any answer back, just more crying and a full-blown tantrum. Does this sound familiar to you? When this happens in your home, I bet you question how you can better communicate with your toddler.

First of all, you need to understand what your toddler is thinking. As a toddler, David was not sure why he did not want the apple anymore. He knew there was an overwhelming impulse inside of his brain telling him, “Say no to the apple!” I quit fighting with him about the apple. Each time he said something, I acknowledged what he was feeling and calmly let him know about my boundary. “You really don’t want that apple. I see. You can eat it later.” Then I paused, took another apple out of the fridge, washed it, took a bite, smiled at him and waited for his reaction. A couple minutes later, he decided to wash his apple and eat it.

Toddlers are still learning how to express themselves, and you are doing your best to keep them happy and satisfied in the meantime. The way you react and the attitude in how you speak to them can make this transition easier. In Montessori, there are several ways to communicate with toddlers.

  1. Give toddlers the opportunity to choose between two equally attractive and positive behaviors or objects, and give them direct choices as much as possible. I gave David two choices, an apple or a banana. This showed him that I have confidence in his ability to make choices. He chose the apple, but then he didn’t want it. I gave him a direct choice, to eat it immediately or eat it later. It showed him that he needs to follow through with choices he makes. 
  2. Speak and listen with respect. A quiet, loving attitude will influence the toddler to behave in the same way and not react with anger, fear or frustration. David had the tantrum and I had to respect his tantrum. I spoke to him quietly and lovingly, which taught him how to respect other people when they get frustrated.
  3. Intervene gently and quietly when necessary. When David had the tantrum, I calmed myself down, quietly took an apple out of the fridge so he could see me wash it, bit it, and enjoyed it. The goal of a Montessori education is to guide toddlers to do things that allow them to participate in choices for themselves as soon as possible, and teach them to be independent. David imitated me after he saw what I did to the apple. My actions not only distracted his upset attention, but also attracted him to wash and taste his apple by himself.

As a toddler, learning communication skills is a challenging stage of development, but also a period of enjoyable exploration and curiosity. The way we communicate with our toddlers is an indispensable part of our roles as parents and caregivers.