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Understanding Toddler and Preschooler Emotional Development

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By Kyle Pruett, Jack Maypole and Lee Scott

Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

Little ones all develop differently, and it is a bit of a roller coaster. One day they are walking, and the next they go back to crawling again. Another child may be consistently using the toilet, and then when a baby sister arrives he goes back to wetting his pants and asking for a diaper. We often see children who are confident going to school one day and then suddenly cling to a parent when separating the next day. Some will cling to one parent while acting confident with the other.

Early childhood is an amazing time since our children are growing and changing daily.  It is normal for them to struggle with anger and fears that arise as they grow. They can find many situations challenging, such as being separated from a loved one, moving to a new classroom, coping with having a new baby join the family or just things they see on television or hear from older children. Many of these fears are hard for little ones to articulate, so they may act out, cry, have a tantrum or suddenly become very quiet. The key is to recognize a change and support your children by exploring what is upsetting them and by reassuring them by reinforcing the things your children know. (E.g., “When you go to school, you know we will be there at the end of the day to pick you up.”) You can explore more from there.

It is also important to take a measure of how your child is doing physically. A behavioral change may be caused by the impact of physical issues ranging from coughs and colds to constipation. Does your child appear to feel unwell or is your child acting differently from her baseline? Assure yourself your child is in good health (without fever or other signs of physical illness) and that she is acting within usual schedules and rituals and needs (eating, sleeping, pooping). Finally, are there any other identifiable ongoing factors (new meds, a new diet, etc.)? Other times, issues of sleep changes and clinginess can be common responses to common things, such as a nightmare or a reaction to stress in a sibling or family member.

In addition to making adjustments within their world, young children also begin to test their independence. How many times does your toddler say “no” during the day?  This is all part of how they experiment with the world, to test their locus of control on the environment and to see what happens.

All of these adjustments and reactions to transitions and situations in life are normal.  It is how we react and support our little ones along their paths in development that is important. Our goal is to calm children’s anxiousness and at the same time support the development of essential skills they will need later in life such as resilience, self-regulation and working memory.

Resources:

The Emotional Life of the Toddler, by Alicia F. Lieberman, is a wonderful resource that looks into this roller-coaster ride of being a young child (from one to three years old). “Anyone who has followed an active toddler around for a day knows that a child of this age is a whirlwind of explosive, contradictory, and ever-changing emotions,” Alicia Lieberman writes. The book offers an in-depth examination of toddlers’ emotional development and supports parents and educators with ideas on how to support young children’s development.

Zero to Three is an organization focused on ensuring that babies and toddlers benefit from the early connections that are critical to their well-being and development. They provide a great deal of support in a Q&A format to guide parents through the developmental stages of young children. Check out this article on responding to toddler fears on their website. This section describes natural fears for young children and how to react as parents and educators.

Literature Resources:

Books can often help you talk with your children about their fears. It is through the characters and their situations that the children can begin to understand what they are feeling. Here are a few books we use in our classrooms:

  • Oh My Baby, Little One by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jane Dyer
  • Little Panda by Renata Liwska
  • Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley
  • Lots of Feelings by Shelly Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly
  • When Mama Comes Home Tonight by Eileen Spinelli and Jane Dyer

KidsHealth is a trusted resource for physicians, educators and parents, providing information on both physical and emotional development of children. The section for parents provides developmental charts as a reference for children’s growth.