The number one most-asked question that I receive from readers goes something like this: “I have a mobile infant/toddler and a preschooler. The younger sibling is constantly wanting to touch/throw/eat all of the small pieces in the preschooler’s shelf work. How do I handle this?”
It’s been asked so often that I have a go-to checklist of strategies for this:
- Have some shelf work that is similar to the one your younger sibling wants to touch, but make it more age-appropriate for your infant/toddler. Redirect her to this material when she’s making it difficult for the older sibling to focus.
- Have some other materials for your infant/toddler that is just for her. Put those materials on the very bottoms of your work shelves so she can reach them independently.
- Put any work that you don’t want to be destroyed up higher on the tops of shelves or in containers that the younger sibling can’t open.
- Have work spaces that are only big enough for one person. If you can, make sure only one person’s work will fit at each table — that makes it easier to redirect the younger sibling to another table with her own work, making fewer distractions for the older sibling.
- Save your most important preschool lessons for times when the younger sibling is napping or super engaged with her own work.
I know it seems impossible if you’ve never tried it before, but I firmly believe that the best course of action is to try to include the younger sibling rather than making things completely off limits or trying to do things separately. It will require A LOT of supervision and redirecting from you at first, but I promise you that they are capable. I ran a toddler classroom of 15 kids ages 18 months to 3 years for seven years — and they are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. ESPECIALLY if you are prepared to redirect and put in the work to teach them how to use the materials appropriately.
If you don’t have the time, energy, or opportunity to put in that extra work, here’s a cheatsheet: Start by thinking about what need the younger sibling is expressing when she interrupts or destroys work. How can you meet that need? Is she interrupting because she wants some attention or just because she’s interested in what older sibling is doing? Is she throwing pieces of work because she needs her own throwing work?
Once you think you know what need your child is expressing, try these shortcuts:
- If younger sibling is interrupting because she wants some attention, let her have some one-on-one time with you in another part of the room while older sibling is at work.
- If younger sibling is just interested in what older sibling is doing, teach her to use her “observation hands”: standing quietly beside older sibling with her hands clasped behind her back.
- If younger sibling needs to throw, create a throwing work with objects that she is allowed to throw within limits. You can set aside an empty box or basket, a work rug, or make a square with tape on the floor, then show her the bean bags or other objects that she is allowed to throw into that specified spot. Redirect her here when she tries to throw the older sibling’s materials.
Part of this is a waiting game — the younger sibling will eventually grow out of babyhood and be ready to fully participate in the work cycle on her own, and that time will come before you know it! While you’re in the thick of it, I know that it seems like this will never get easier. But I promise it will!
If you’d like more help from someone who’s been there, I highly recommend checking out my Montessori Homeschool Preschool E-Course!