Shaping Toddler Behavior

By Various Authors
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Three toddlers sit side-by-side in front of a pile of toys. One tries to take a toy airplane from the middle child.
Christopher Futcher/iStock
Set the expectation for children so they have a greater awareness of their surroundings, and oftentimes, the needs of others.

Toddlers need to learn so much in such a short period of time. They need to learn to be attentive, quiet, aware of their surroundings, and so much more. Here are some ideas to help train your toddler:

Voice Volumes

It’s not easy teaching children how to regulate their voice. So I discussed these levels with my children:

No talking — often used during church or prayer time

Whisper voice — perfect for the library or movie theater

Peer talk — everyday interactions with others

Outside voice — a loud, boisterous, play voice

Emergency — use only when someone is hurt or needs immediate help from an adult

When we’d go somewhere, I’d ask my children: “What voice level do you think we should be using here?” and then, “What does that sound like?” It worked well.

—Katie Walsh

The Power of the Pause

One of the best things I started doing when our oldest was a toddler was pausing before we went into a new situation. Instead of jumping out of the car when we arrived, we would sit in the car for a minute and talk about what would be appropriate and inappropriate behavior in this place. For example, if we were going into a library or museum, we would talk about being quiet, not running and staying close to me. When I took the time to explain my expectations, my child knew how to respond.

—Alyssa Johnston

Toss Out the Loud

To encourage my 2-year-old daughter to use her quiet voice, I say loudly, “Let’s throw away our loud voice.” Then in a whisper, I say, “Let’s get our quiet voice.” We pantomime spitting out our loud voice and eating (complete with a loud swallow) our quiet voice. Then I whisper, “Are you talking quietly?”

She whispers back, “Yes, I’m talking quietly.”

If she doesn’t whisper, I say (increasing or decreasing my volume at the appropriate cue words — regular, loud or quiet), “That’s your regular (or loud) voice. My quiet voice sounds like this.”

We repeat the pantomime until she has her quiet voice.

—Christina Nunes

The Toddler Whisper Game

When my toddler was learning how to string words together, we often played the whisper game. I said a simple word or phrase and asked him to match his voice level to my own. This helped him control the volume of his voice.

—Andrea Canning

Time Out In Toddler Behavior

Timeouts have been my family’s discipline strategy for most of our parenting and foster-parenting years. In our home, we’ve had a timeout chair, a timeout step, a timeout mat and other timeout locations. But recently I discovered the effectiveness of “time-ins.” The concept is based on spending time with the child instead of isolating him or her.

A few weeks ago, our 3-year-old foster daughter was in a really bad mood. She has a quick temper,
which had landed her in timeout a number of times that day. After seeing no change in her behavior,
I decided to give time-in a try. No sooner did the thought cross my mind than I heard her screaming
loudly in the living room.

I picked up my sobbing child and sat her on a comfortable chair beside me. I said, “Sweetie, you are
going to sit by me for five minutes. There are books here that you can choose to look at, or you can
just sit.”

She defiantly crossed her arms and pouted, but after a short time, she picked up the first book.
After five minutes were up, I gave her the OK to go play, but she just wanted to sit beside me and
look at books. And to my surprise, there were no more tantrums for the rest of the day.

—Adelle Norg

Time for Two

Afternoons were rough. After I put my newborn down for a nap, I often struggled to keep my wound-up 3-year-old son quietly occupied so his sibling could sleep. Then one afternoon I pulled out a couple of teacups, saucers, napkins and small spoons.

I asked my son to help me set up, and we sat down to chat over tea and small sandwiches. It went so
well that we continued doing this every afternoon. It became a welcome break for both of us and gave my son the time he needed with me, which made him calmer for the rest of the afternoon.

—Alyssa Johnston

Wait Your Turn

As a former school psychologist, I frequently used the phrase “First ___; then ____” with students. It gave students structure, helping them know what to expect and reducing their number of requests.

So I tried it with my toddler. I acknowledged what she wanted and told her what had to happen first. Instead of just asking her to wait, I’d say, “First I need to feed your baby brother; then we can work on coloring valentines.”

This reduced the number and frequency of her requests. She also learned that sometimes she couldn’t immediately get what she wanted.

— Lauren Gaines

Positive Attention for Toddler Behavior

Often moms and dads encourage toddlers to show off new skills because parents are excited about the milestones their children reach. Prompting them to display their newly acquired ability is natural, but excessive enthusiasm may convey the message that showing off is the best way to gain positive attention.

Avoid praising children only for things they do to perform. Remember to celebrate accomplishments such as sitting still, listening attentively, sharing with another child or demonstrating patience. Giving attention for positive actions helps children learn appropriate behavior.

— Sandy Broome

Toddler Airplane Watching

A giant, blue-bellied plane landed with a rumble. “Did you see that one?” I asked. Three-year-old Will shook his head no. The restaurant’s enormous glass window offered a panoramic view of two runways. Another plane soared by.

Getting his attention

“Did you see that?” I exclaimed.

“Where?” By the time Will looked up from his plate of spaghetti and meatballs, the plane was gone.

“There’ll be others,” I assured him. Just then a jet readied for takeoff. “Will, see the orange plane?” I pointed. Will nodded, and I continued, “It’s revving its engines, picking up speed and is now in the air.”

“Wow!” he exclaimed, but he wasn’t looking at the jet. He was looking at the highway below.

“Those are trucks, not planes,” I ex-plained.

Physical help

The next plane came in for a landing, so I lifted Will’s chin. “Here it comes.” The first time he looked too high, then too low.

As the next plane landed, he said, “Look, Mommy, no hands,” and slurped his pasta.

Will was weepy by the time we left. “How come I didn’t get to see the planes?”

Day by day, God reveals His plans for me, but too often, like Will, I let distractions and busyness keep me from seeing Him. Of course, Will had a better excuse for his inability to see planes than I had for not following God. Most young children have a difficult time tracking things such as airplanes when they are in the distance, but I couldn’t answer his question with a lecture on cognitive ability.

All I could say was, “Maybe you’ll see them next time.”

— Laura Sassi

“Voice Volumes” © 2019 Katie Walsh. “The Power of the Pause” © 2019 Alyssa Johnston. “Toss Out the Loud” © 2019 Christina Nunes. “The Toddler Whisper Game” © 2019 Andrea Canning. “Time Out In” © 2017 Adelle Norg. “Time for Two” © 2017 Alyssa Johnston. “Wait Your Turn” © 2017 Lauren Gaines. “Positive Attention” © 2007 Sandy Broome. “Airplane Watching” © 2007 Laura Sassi. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

First found in Focus on the Family publications:

“Voice Volumes,” “The Power of the Pause,” “Toss Out the Loud” and “The Toddler Whisper Game” first appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. “Time Out In”  and “Time for Two” first appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. “Wait Your Turn” first appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. “Positive Attention” first appeared in Focus on Your Child Early Stages, February/March 2007 newsletter. “Airplane Watching” first appeared in Focus on Your Child Early Stages, May/June 2007 newsletter. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.


Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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