Tips for Teaching New Skills to a Toddler

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Parent Coach

baby-cleaning-teeth-9843860Tips for teaching a toddler a new skill. Have you ever tried to teach a toddler how to do something they haven’t yet learned to do, such as brush their teeth or clean the table before the meal? If so, congratulations! We all know it’s easier just to do these things ourselves. But the children benefit when we let them participate more in the household community.

So, let’s say you have decided to make time to show your toddler how to clean the table, sweep the floor, water the plants, or set and clean the table. There are some basic principles you can follow to help your child learn to do these activities in an active, self-directed way that will engage their brains.

  1. Break the activity down into small steps. Think about the sequencing—there is a logical and most effective order. You don’t wipe the table and THEN get the sponge wet.
  2. Think through what might be difficult about this task for someone who lacks fluent coordinated movement. Think about what might help them grasp the task. For example, it will help if they take it slow, use both hands, and take it one step at a time.
  3. Show them how it’s done. Slowly. They are intelligent, but they don’t have the experience to understand everything in context, and it will take more time. It’s also helpful to realize that toddlers will learn best if you separate talking from moving. As we say “when my hands are moving, my mouth is not and when my mouth is moving, my hands are not.” Young children who are learning language are so focused on our speech that they can’t also effectively track our activities when we’re speaking. So say what you’re going to do, then do it without saying anything. Then wait. 🙂
  4. Be prepared. Do this when you have time and patience for your child. Be aware that these lessons can take 20 or 30 minutes at first. Be sure that you have all the materials to complete the task that fit their hands and are within their reach.

Toddlers develop much greater skills and more considerate behavior when we allow them to participate in self-care and care of the environment.  When you can make time to let them do more for themselves, it brings out the best in them.  They become calm.

Over time, they will gain fluency with these activities and you will have more time for fun together because they will be helping to keep things clean and orderly.  They will also feel like respected members of the community with a meaningful role like everyone else. And you will have less arguments about “LET ME DO IT!”

Who does not know that to teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely greater patient, than feeding, washing and dressing the child oneself? But, the former is the work of an educator; the latter is the easy and inferior work of the servant. – Maria Montessori



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