Toddlers are notorious for their tantrums. Telling a young child “No” seems to have the opposite effect of the one intended, as toddlers take that as a direct challenge and continue to do the “bad” behavior.
Montessorians take a different approach to discipline. Rather than telling a child what we don’t want them to do, we tell them what we do want them to do — positive redirection. Instead of saying, “No running,” we say, “Use your walking feet.” Instead of saying “Don’t climb on the table,” we say, “Put your feet on the floor.” And, for the most part, it works.
With L, this technique does not work in the bathroom. Sometimes, she goes in the bathroom and begins to misbehave instead of standing to get her diaper changed. Most of the time, this means she sits down on the floor. Using the technique above, we would say, “Stand up.” She simply replies, “No.” When the positive redirection technique is not working, it’s time to offer choices. Only two choices, and you must be ok with either option being chosen. In this circumstance, we say, “Are you going to hold on to the railing or are you going to hold on to the door?” Bingo. L feels like she has the control again — because isn’t that what misbehavior and tantrums are all about? She quickly stands and chooses one of those places to hold on to.
Another Montessori strategy when dealing with misbehavior is to enforce natural consequences. This isn’t a punishment like grounding your child from tv or threatening her with no dessert after dinner. The consequence must make sense for the offence. If your child throws her food on the floor during dinner, she must climb down, pick it up, and put it on her plate — and that means she is all done. (L is very young. When this happens with L, we remove her plate from reach for a minute or two, then ask if she is ready to eat again. When we give it back, she does not throw it on the floor again.) If she throws her work across the room, she must clean it up and be all done with that work. If she continues to throw other works across the room, she may no longer choose any work for a while.
When these strategies are used consistently, by all caregivers in the child’s life, they are almost foolproof. There are the occasional times when neither strategy works for L and she explodes into a screaming tantrum. On those occasions, we ignore her (while still making sure she is safe and not able to hurt herself). There are no “time-out” chairs or corners. We haven’t reached this level of tantrum yet, but if it ever happens that her flailing around is dangerous to herself or others, we will move her to a “calming spot” that is free of obstacles and offers her a safe place to calm down.
It is sometimes possible to defuse a tantrum in the middle of one. If your child is screaming and carrying on in typical tantrum fashion, change your tone of voice. Try whispering. If your child wants to hear what you’re saying, she’ll have to quiet down in order to hear your whispered words. Try counting in a low, soothing voice — usually by the time you get to 20 or 30 the tantrum has eased and the child begins to calm down. A trick I used when I was a teacher was singing — if you have a room full of loud, crazy toddlers who won’t settle down, begin to softly sing a familiar song. It’s like magic. The mood in the room instantly changes and everyone quiets down to hear the song. I’m sure this will work on an individual basis, as well.
Most of all, remember that it’s completely normal for toddlers to be acting this way. They are new to this world, and trying to find their place in it. Toddlers constantly test boundaries — they want to know where they stand. Providing consistent boundaries helps your toddler to feel safe and secure, because she knows what to expect in each situation.
L certainly does her share of testing boundaries and throwing tantrums. I am lucky enough to have spent many years observing toddlers and being trained in how to deal with them, and it was definitely one of the topics that came up most often when parents asked for help at home. Each situation is different, and you need to find the strategies that work in those situations to provide your child with a secure environment.
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