Last week, we blogged about how to read the body language, behaviours, and non-verbal hints that babies use to communicate. This week, we’re talking about understanding toddlers.
Toddlers are much more capable of understanding human speech than babies, with older toddlers being able to form full sentences and with vocabularies of up to 900 words.
Of course, toddlers still have a long way to go developing their speech before they’re capable of relying completely on their words. So how do they communicate in the meantime?
Body language and behaviour!
You can start inferring what the toddlers and children in your care are thinking and feeling from their non-verbal signs from an early age. And while no one’s expecting you to get it 100% right – you’re not a mind reader, after all – you can get a pretty good idea just by paying attention.
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Reading body language
They say that 90% of what we say isn’t in our words, but in our faces, tone, and body language.
As an early childcare educator, communication can be one of the most difficult aspects of the job. Not only is it difficult to convey ideas to toddlers in a way that they understand, there’s also the problem of just what they’re trying to say back to you.
The beautiful thing about working with toddlers is that since they’re so young, they haven’t yet learned how to keep their body language under control. This makes their true feelings easy to read – there’s a reason toddlers and small children are terrible liars, after all!
Toddler crossing his arms
Crossed arms in an adult can mean many things. We’ve all heard that crossing your arms shows that you’re uncomfortable, anxious, or insecure.
However, the act of folding your arms can mean much more than that: in some cases, it can be a sign of frustration, an attempt to project power… or just to protect yourself from the cold!
Such a simple sign can signal so many different things. Fortunately, when toddlers do it the reasons are almost always much clearer.
When a toddler crosses their arms, it shows that they feel nervous or uncomfortable. Maybe they feel uncomfortable with a particular toy, person or activity, and without the words to express this apprehension, they revert to instinct: in this case, putting as much between themselves and the offending object, person or activity!
As a childhood educator, you can show the toddler that the new toy or person is nothing to be afraid of by leading by example. Toddlers are like sponges, after all: they absorb things.
So if they see their trusted carer or their peers interacting normally and confidently with the new person or toy, chances are they’ll slowly see that it’s nothing to be scared of and, eventually, warm up to it.
What does it mean when a toddler avoids eye contact?
No matter how hard you try, a toddler or child just refuses to look you in the eye. Your first thought is to assume that the child is hiding something from you.
While this can sometimes be the case, it can also be a sign of shame or embarrassment. Maybe they’ve made a mistake, or done something they know they shouldn’t have.
Avoiding eye contact is a sign of discomfort, regardless. If a toddler is avoiding your gaze, the best thing you can do is not make a big deal out of it. After all, they’re not looking at you because they feel uncomfortable with something they’ve done – so don’t turn it into a song and dance.
As a childcare educator, part of your job is making sure those in your care feel at ease. A gentle approach goes a long way – something as simple as more neutral tone of voice and using gentle language can make them more willing to tell you what happened.
Reading toddler behaviours
Actions speak louder than words – that’s an idea most of us learn at an early age.
And when it comes to toddlers, their actions can tell you a lot!
From tantrums, to hiding, to the way they hold objects close to themselves, a toddler’s actions can help carers and early childhood professionals identify problems, as well as to create a positive atmosphere for all your toddlers and children.
Tantrums. Oh boy, tantrums.
Tantrums are, without a doubt, one of the most intimidating things an early childhood educator can deal with in their day… and in many cases, they can feel like they’re completely unavoidable.
Toddlers and children throw tantrums to bring attention to certain strong needs, frustrations or emotions. Some examples include:
- Strong emotions
Tantrums should be interpreted as a call to action:
- Do they need food?
- Are they angry?
- Are they overwhelmed?
Regardless of the root cause, tantrums can be overwhelming not only for children, but those caring for them, too. We’ve previously blogged about managing toddler temper tantrums at childcare, which you can read here.
What does it mean when a toddler hides?
When adults feel uncomfortable, anxious or just want some space, we normally try to create distance, but subtly.
While toddlers aren’t known for their tact, this type of behaviour in toddlers is sometimes driven by the same underlying cause.
The exact reason can vary. If they’ve just been introduced to someone new like a new childcare educator and they’ve run off behind a counter, it could be a sign that they’re not yet comfortable enough with the stranger.
Alternatively, maybe your centre’s daily routine has seen a bit of a shake-up, with a new activity replacing that some of your toddlers might feel uncomfortable with. This could be a sign that your centre’s new activity schedule still needs some work.
Clutching objects close
As toddlers get older, they learn that hiding or running away from the people, things or activities that make them uneasy is no longer an acceptable response. Or maybe they have no escape route. But they still want to get away. So what do they do?
They might cross their arms to create distance, or they might cling to an object like a toy, blanket, or book. Whatever it is, it’s something like and having it nearby makes them feel at ease.
Clinging an object may mean:
- The little one doesn’t feel completely at home in your childcare centre
- They don’t like an activity
- There’s another child nearby they feel uncomfortable around
As an early childhood educator, your job is to make sure the children in your care are safe and comfortable. So if you see this red flag pop up, take some time to have a talk with the toddler or their parents about what’s making them feel uneasy.
How can you improve your communication?
When you communicate with toddlers, your body language matters just as much!
Even though they’re still young, toddlers are very capable of understanding what your face, body, and posture are telling them. There are many simple strategies that early childhood educators can use to improve body language.
- Maintain eye contact
- Drop down to the same level
- Understand when to engage toddlers and when to leave them alone
- Use an appropriate tone
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