• autonomy: ability to make decisions for oneself and direct one’s own behavior
  • empathy: ability to recognize, share, understand, and consider another person’s feelings
  • positive guidance: helping a child learn good behaviors and self control

Help Toddlers Express Themselves in Positive Ways

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the segment of video beginning at 0:52 and ending at 2:40.

To start the video in the middle, click the play arrow. Then move your cursor along the progress bar. Click the progress bar when you reach the time you'd like to start.

Young toddlers are active, inquisitive learners who often want to choose their own activities and to do things for themselves. They are full of curiosity, energy, and strong feelings. They are just beginning to learn to control their outbursts of frustration or excitement and may need help to express themselves in positive ways. Toddlers like to feel in charge and in control—they want to make choices for themselves.

Sharing a coveted item or taking turns is particularly difficult for young toddlers. “Mine” is a new and important word. From a toddler’s point of view: “If I have it, it’s mine. If I had it and put it down, it’s mine. If I want it, it’s mine.” But young toddlers are also capable of sensitivity, kindness, and generosity. You can tap into these qualities as you help toddlers learn to resolve inevitable conflicts with other children.

  • Model empathy. Give toddlers words for their strong feelings and comfort them when they are upset. Acknowledge a child’s own feelings as you help him recognize what another child may be feeling. When children disagree, help them to calm down, recognize each other’s feelings and desires, and find a solution that makes them both happy.
  • Offer simple choices. Give toddlers time to say or show what they want. For example, you might ask, “Would you like to carry the bucket?” or “Would you like the red shovel or the green shovel?” You tend to use more specific language when you offer a child a choice instead of telling him what to do, and toddlers are more likely to use language as they respond. In addition, a toddler is often more willing to do what you request when he has made the choice on his own.
  • Use positive guidance strategies. Young toddlers are still learning safe and appropriate behavior. They need limits and they need to test them. But you don’t like to say “no” all the time, and toddlers don’t like to hear it. In fact, research shows that toddlers learn less language when they hear mostly what not to do. When you use positive guidance strategies (such as encouraging words, questions, explanations, and teaching polite, kind, and safe behavior), you use richer language and invite responses. When toddlers hear “yes” more often than “no,” their language develops more fully and more quickly, and they learn to use their words to express their feelings and ask for what they want.

In this segment, you’ll see Kristin and Eileen help toddlers cope with strong emotions, make choices, and resolve conflicts. In addition to supporting toddlers’ autonomy by acknowledging their feelings and offering them choices, Kristin and Eileen use a number of positive guidance strategies.

Now watch the video segment. Begin at 0:52 when Kristin says, “Come here. I know you want the corn” and end at 2:40 when Eileen says, “Come on up.” As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to these viewing questions in your Learning Log.

  • What do you notice about how the educators respond to children’s communications and their expressions of strong emotion?
  • What do you notice about the ways the educators help the children make choices?
  • What other positive guidance strategies do the educators use?


How can you help toddlers who are overly excited, upset, angry, or frustrated express their feelings appropriately?

  • You can:
    • Acknowledge the child’s feelings.
    • Give the child words for what he seems to be trying to express.
    • Physically comfort, support, and contain the child gently and affectionately.
    • Offer the child a choice to do something. (For example, in the video Kristin asks, “Do you want to hold the grapes?”)

What benefits do toddlers gain when you offer them choices?

  • Toddlers gain the following benefits:
    • They hear and use more language.
    • They feel respected as individuals.
    • They strengthen their relationship with you. 

How can you help toddlers recognize and consider each other’s feelings and desires?

  • You can:
    • Acknowledge the child’s own feelings.
    • Point out or describe how another child may feel or what he seems to want. (For example, in the video Eileen says, “He’s waiting for a turn.”)
    • Show pride and pleasure when commenting upon children’s sensitivity to others (“Oh! You knew that Kai was looking for a yellow egg!”), and tell families about these special moments.
    • Help children to acknowledge each other’s kind acts.
    • Encourage budding friendships by giving children chances to play together in their favorite ways, and tell families about their children’s growing friendships.

How can you help young toddlers to share or take turns with toys?

  • You can:
    • Provide enough duplicate or similar items so that children do not have to share or take turns all of the time.
    • Be empathetic. Acknowledge a child’s strong desire to keep, take, or hoard toys, before you try to enlist her cooperation.
    • Enlist children’s cooperation by offering choices, within limits. (“When you’re all done with the egg, could you give it to Kai?”)
    • Remind a child of another child’s feelings. (“He’s waiting for a turn.”)
    • Provide options for solving the problem.
    • Acknowledge kindness and sharing. (“That was really nice of you to consider Kai.”)
    • Play turn-taking games, such as handing items back and forth or taking turns throwing things into a basket.
    • Encourage trading one toy for another rather than taking turns or sharing.
    • Offer toys such as large balls and rocking boats that are more fun to use with a partner.
    • Give the child who is waiting a sand glass or windup kitchen timer that will hold her interest. Over time, children can learn to work timers and to use them on their own.

How can you support young toddlers’ considerate behavior?

  • You can:
    • Model considerate behavior in your relationships with other adults.
    • Model considerate behavior as you interact with children.
    • Teach children words that describe feelings; help them put their feelings into words.
    • Teach polite words and actions.
    • Teach children simple words (or signs) to use when another child does something they don’t like.
    • Provide a comfortable, predictable, low-stress environment and a rhythm to the day, respecting each child’s unique needs for stimulation, relaxation, and a balance of active and quiet activities. (Conflicts are most likely to occur when children are tired, hungry, or overexcited. It is especially hard for young toddlers to express themselves in positive ways and be considerate of others when they are feeling stressed.)


Think about the toddlers in your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • How do you help toddlers express themselves in positive ways as they explore materials and interact with other children?
  • What did you learn that you will take back to your learning environment and put into practice?
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