Toddlers are a lot like little puppies. They need to learn what to pay attention to, what to listen to, and how predictably the world is going to remain consistent. Puppies can be a lot easier to control than toddlers, as puppies don’t operate at the higher intellect of your human little one…. well most puppies. My puppy transforms into a little tasmanian devil sometimes and when he spirals into overstimulated mode, he is straight up cray-cray, LOL.
But just like pups, there are certain instructions that if your little one can master, it really does make life a lot easier. Like when I taught my puppy how to redirect his attention to me for a treat, OMG it was a game-changer for us. Whether he is doing something naughty or about to get himself into danger, I know I can employ a specific instruction without having to be stern or scary, and get his eyes back on me.
If you want to make life with your toddler easier for you (and for every other adult and maybe peer they come in contact with), I strongly recommend that you teach them to follow seven of what I consider to be the most important instructions for toddlers to know. Everyone fares better if your child responds well to certain socially-related instructions — they perform better socially, you relax more, and others interact with them better, too. Prosocial skills really do start early. Pretty much exactly like puppy training. Except like I said, kids aren’t puppies. They’re a lot smarter and you can’t just feed toddlers bits of food to get them to do everything we want, haha.
It is important to understand that the toddler brain is not wired the same way as older children or adults. It’s in “go” mode all the time. And capturing a toddler’s attention is a learned skill for the toddler. That being said, here are the seven basic instructions a Montessori toddler guide believes every toddler deserves to learn.
- “Come here/ Come with me”. This trains your toddler to track with you physically when they’ve gone too far away from you, or when you need their attention to do something. It also trains them to come to you and stay with you when it’s time to walk from point A to point B for any reason. For example, if it’s time to do anything at all, you start with “come here/ Come with me”; and then follow up with whatever you’re going to do “It’s time to take a bath”, “it’s time to go pick daddy up from work, we need to go to the car”, whatever. They need to learn to respond when you say “come here/ come with me”, knowing they are expected to come join you and that you’ll be doing something non-negotiable together.
2. “Stop/ Stop your feet/ Stop your body”. I can’t express how critical the skill of “stopping” is for toddlers. They are not natural “stoppers”. Stopping anything is an inhibitory response for the human brain. Inhibition actions are not easy for toddlers because of how their brains are wired (they’re making a million neural connections per second). Learning how to “stop” helps them learn to immediately pause all of their action when they hear you say “stop”. This serves them if they are ever doing anything dangerous, destructive, or disruptive.
You NEVER need to say “stop” in a scary, authoritarian way. Even a neutral but alerting enough “[child] stop!”, like you’re playing a fun game of freeze dance, will get the job done. There’s a reason why games like “red light green light” and “freeze dance” are so valuable and fun for young children. The word and ability to “stop” is a powerful instruction for them to learn to heed; and the better they learn how to respond to others asking them to “stop”, the better they will fare socially at all stages of life.
3. “Walk”/ “slow down”. Toddlers naturally run. All small creatures are fast movers. If left up to their own devices they would choose to run everywhere, trust me! LOL. But it is not appropriate for people to run everywhere, particularly for indoor settings when you’re in a public space. Thus, the very young child must learn that if asked to “walk” or “slow down”, adults mean it. If they cannot slow down and walk on their own, the adult must take their hand and physically help their speed to slow down. An adult’s walking pace must also be very slow if you want your child to learn to walk more often than they run. A lot of the time toddlers run because our adult walking pace is their run.
4. “I hear you; Just a moment/ Please wait (quietly). Most toddlers have very little patience for waiting on us adults to respond to their needs. They will basically chant their request or your name over and over, ad nauseam, until you respond to them. They must be trained, through repeated practice, to understand that their needs are not always going to be responded to immediately– and they’re not gonna die, and they will eventually get what they need after a reasonable wait. I help them practice by saying, “just a moment, please wait”. If I got a dollar for how many times I have to say that at work every day, I’d be rich, OK? LOL! Sometimes I also have to say “I hear you, just a moment” or “I hear you, please wait (quietly)”. With repeated practice, they will learn that you will eventually respond.
5. “All done”. Yet again, the toddler brain exists in “go” mode. Part of the toddler’s natural go mode is going going going going… endlessly. It’s if the good things (and even the bad things) are never going to come to a stopping point in toddlerlandia. Learning when an adult says “all done”, that an experience is in fact effectively over, is a very critical and even comforting toddler life lesson. When I say “all done” in my classroom, I mean it. And so should every parent. That phrase is one of your parental golden tickets to being in charge. You can say “all done” as soon as that horrible face wiping session is over, when it’s time to be done playing at the park, when they wanna sit on the potty for way too long, when it’s time to put the toys away… The possibilities for the phrase “all done” are ironically endless.
6. “Listen to [person]”. And sometimes you may need to follow up with “I said _____” or “I heard [person] say _____”. For example, “Listen to mommy. I said ‘stop’ “. Sometimes listening to others is not a suggestion for a toddler. It must happen. So this phrase really reinforces that people’s words should be honored and followed through in action. In the Montessori method we call this “courtesy”. The phrase “listen to [person]” trains a toddler not to ignore the things people ask of them. Which they will absolutely do by default, if left to their own devices. Trust me, most of the are horrible listeners.
I once stumbled upon this blog post for single women who feel invisible, given that we now live in an era where men treat women in ridiculous and absurd ways like bread crumbing, or ghosting; and we now live in an age where cancel culture is fully permitted. It was suggested in said article that some women can actually train other people not to have to respond to them by tolerating it when they are being ignored or brushed aside.
Hearing that adults do this to each other was an a-ha moment for me as a Montessori practitioner in regards to toddler behavior. If responding to you is optional, some people (and toddlers) straight up won’t respond to you. Thus, is so important that you insist that your words are listened to by toddlers 110% of the time you give them instructions if you want them to legitimately respect you as a person worthy of being listened to. Along a similar vein, I once heard that once people choose a leader in a social group, they don’t generally assign that role to anyone else.
7. “Look! / Watch me/ watch this…”. Capturing a toddler’s visual attention in order to help them learn how to do things is another critical toddler skill. If parents wonder why I can get toddlers to do “exceptional” things, and they struggle, a secret weapon is visual tracking. It would amaze you how a toddler’s eyes can be darting to and fro when you’re trying to show them how to cue into something important. You really have to watch them, and wait until their visual attention is tracking with you. This is also true when you speak to them– you want that eye contact if your words are super important.
Otherwise, you’ll be asking them to put their own shoes on and it turns out they aren’t even looking at the shoes in front of their own eyes, or your mouth/ face asking them to put the shoes on, LOL. So before I give any demonstrations for how to do things (like put on their own shoes, brush their own teeth, wash their own hands, etc.), I say “look!” or “watch me… “, or “watch this!”. You may even need to tap the item of interest a few times with a pointer finger, or point to what they should be looking at in order to help them fully pay attention.
I hope that mastering these basic and critical instructions helps you do life easier with your todd! Mahalo (thank you) for reading ♡