What tricky toddlers are really telling you

IEU organiser Lisa Jameslistened to an episode of parenting podcast Feed Play Love, exploring challenging behaviour in young children. She adapts its findings for the early childhood education setting.

Toddlers often engage in behaviours in which they test boundaries by asserting themselves – hence their reputation for responding “no” or throwing tantrums when faced with what adults perceive to be the most reasonable of requests. For example, refusing to be strapped into their car seats or refusing to hold an adult’s hand in a car park.

Dr Kate Highfield, an expert in early learning with Early Childhood Australia and mother of a toddler, explains that when toddlers behave in this way they are not trying to frustrate their parents and caregivers but learning about cause and effect: “If I do this, what will happen?”

At this age, toddlers are not aware of the risks involved with their behaviours and caregivers need to look at the behaviour and analyse what the child needs to learn in this situation.

It is the caregiver’s responsibility to shape the toddler’s understanding of the situation. For example, if you want to teach a child not to run around in a car park, do it in a way that does not infer that all cars are dangerous and to be avoided, as children are making synaptic connections through their experiences and interactions with caregivers.

Here are a few difficult or dangerous behaviours and what is really happening for the child:

Running in car parks

Running in a car park or onto the street is dangerous but a child might not be ready to understand that a driver may not be able to see them. Teachers may at times need to prevent a toddler from engaging in this unwanted behaviour by holding their hand and walking them to or from their parent. Car parks, particularly enclosed ones, provide excellent acoustics for stomping and shouting. The young child is simply showing interest in movement and sound.

Jumping on furniture

Jumping up and down on furniture can lead to injuries, not to mention the potential damage to budgets if something gets broken. Children are learning how their body feels and works as they push their weight against the furniture followed by launching into the air. Guidance here might involve redirection: “I see you’re enjoying leaping in the air, the trampoline outside will help you go even higher, let’s see if we can play on that.”

Hitting and biting

For many children, hitting or biting others is a form of communication. Your responsibility as a teacher is to work out what the child is trying to communicate. Are they frustrated? Are they unable to express what they want or feel? For example, are they distressed, hungry or confused? Toddlers who hit or bite are releasing their frustration rather than considering how the recipient of their behaviour is experiencing it. Emotion coaching is needed here – acknowledge the child’s feelings and set boundaries around their behaviour. “I know you were angry that Jack had the truck you wanted but hitting is not OK. Jack is crying because you hurt him. Let’s find another truck so you both have one.” You may need to prevent the toddler from hitting by moving them away from the other child.

Saying “no”

Toddlers like to say “no”, even when you are asking them to do something familiar. At this developmental stage, two year olds are building their sense of agency – they’re discovering that they have free will and can make decisions independently. Acknowledge what the child is telling you and maintain boundaries while redirecting them to more appropriate behaviour. “I understand you are saying you don’t want to brush your teeth, but you need do it to stay healthy. So we’ll do it now, then you can go and play.”

Your responsibility as a teacher is to work out what the child is trying to communicate. Are they frustrated? Are they unable to express what they want or feel? Are they distressed, hungry or confused?

Refusing to nap

Conflict may arise when toddlers are clearly tired – they may fight the urge to rest as their head nods forward, their resilience is rapidly deteriorating and they get upset over little things. This reluctance may be due to the child’s growing brain firing – overstimulation from noise in the room, interest in what other children are doing and a strong desire not to miss out on anything. Developing a routine such as reading a story, giving the child a drink of water and playing restful, relaxing music can encourage them to succumb to the need for rest.

As teachers, we acknowledge toddlers lack the language or cognitive skills to express their feelings in appropriate and constructive ways, and part of our job is to teach them to regulate their emotions and behaviour. A good practice is to consider the young child’s behaviour as a form of communication; verbally express what they are trying to express; then redirect them towards an alternative, more positive action.


Feed Play Love with Shevonne Hunt; Understanding your toddler’s behaviour, 11 February 2020