I love teaching kids, I really do. Young learners, as in those under thirteen, have in general this complete lack of shame I kind of envy. A good ninety percent of the classes they will just SHOUT OUT LOUD ALL THE ENGLISH and they do not care at all if it’s correct or not. One particular group though is both the most rewarding and the most challenging for me, and that is the toddlers.
I think many people view the toddler age as this maelstrom of violent outbursts and awful tantrums, because that’s what a decent majority of family dramas depict in TV shows and movies. And while, yes, there are tantrums, toddlers do have some positives in teaching them. I want to talk about a few of those as well as some of the challenging aspects.
Let me start off with how I don’t think toddlers get enough credit when it comes to how loving they can be. Toddlers will love you, just because you exist and you’re in their life. Some of my students will hug me on sight, even when I’m not even teaching them that day. Sometimes they’re so excited to start class they’ll line up five minutes early and just be bouncing balls of energy in anticipation. I get adorable drawings and hand written letters that say, “For Jessica teacher!” with my name horrendously misspelled, and I love them all.
Many people see it as being “clingy or needy”, but toddlers really only cling to people they actually like and trust. For me, when a parent ever says the words, “Wow! They never used to like English class, but now my child loves coming to your class.” That means I’ve successfully linked English to fun by extension of me being the “fun teacher.”
But toddlers can be a handful, not gonna lie.
Toddlers have that special in-between balancing act of, “Yeah, I can totally walk and run, but I will also fall right on my face if you look away for two seconds.”
One time, I taught a four year old private student. She was one of the first little tykes I’d ever had just by myself. Previously as a JET Program ALT, there was always a main teacher actually in charge. I just danced and sang songs in the pre-schools/kindergarten classes.
This girl at one point in the lesson looked at me, giggled, and then turned around to run straight into a wall. Just, THUNK! And laughed some more as she fell backwards. I was in shock for a good two seconds, but then I managed to keep the lesson going.
Over time, her head swelled up and I thought her mom was gonna kill me. To my surprise, after I honestly told the mother, “So…she ran…into a wall. She didn’t even hesitate, she just, BOOM, hit it with her head.”
The mother took one look at her daughter, and then looked at me and said, “I believe you.”
Turns out it was a habitual thing.
So as a TEFL teacher I’ve got to try to make my classroom environment fun, but also as safe as possible for little squishy potato heads. I learned my lesson from that previous class, so there is no running in my classrooms. We jump, we skip, we dance but we don’t run in the classroom.
That being said, kids are kids and will find ways to test patience and break rules/things they know they’re not supposed to. I can’t count how many times kids have tried to get away with cheating at games, or tried to change the rules of a game to fit them winning over another student/team.
People ask me how I discipline toddlers and I tell them the truth: I put them in a time-out corner.
A lot of people immediately say, “But that never works with my students! They just get back up.” Yep, I believe that, which is why my response is, “Pretend they’re still in time-out anyway.” In other words, ignore the child, don’t engage with them until they’re ready to behave and apologize.
Some people get intimidated by toddlers. After all, they can (and do) scream or cry at the drop of a hat, especially if they don’t get things going their way. However, it’s essential during a toddler phase to put down strict limits on what’s OK behavior and what’s not in a classroom.
Basically, yes I’m teaching them English, but I am also teaching social skills as part of that communication set.
Also, I see a lot of people try to do timeouts wrong, like put the toddler in the corner for like ten minutes. NO, not even that long! To a toddler a minute by itself is forever. Stick with three to five minute timeouts, don’t hover over them just leave them alone, and make them apologize before resuming play. Tah-dah, you’ve got yourself a kid that understands where the limit is.
Back on the subject of crying toddlers, it’s gonna happen in a class at some point or another. Toddlers are tiny humans who don’t really get how this whole body movement thing works, and they’re going to get frustrated simply because they’re just not coordinated yet. I’ve had kids cry because they’re tired or hungry, and that’s fair enough.
I don’t ever punish crying when kids get frustrated or hurt or upset over stuff they just can’t control. When that happens, I just use distraction methods. Sometimes that means I get out crayons and sheet of paper to let them relax, just draw something pretty for mommy and daddy. Sometimes that means I change the game or start a dance so they’ll kind of just “forget” they were upset in the first place.
Just very recently, I had a class full of three and four year old cuties come back after the New Year’s break. One of the boys did NOT like that Dad wasn’t coming into class with him. He started bawling, crocodile tears running down his face. His Dad was a good sport about it, just told him to “Gambarre!” and he’d pick him up after class.
My little tyke kept crying as Dad left the door. I got out a floor mat piece – we put down soft Alphabet mats as cushion for the floor – and asked him, “Hey [student], what color is this?”
He sniffled, stared at the mat for a second, and then he cried out, “Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!!!” He proceeded to take the may while still crying and put it with the other floor pieces. Other students lined up and started taking the other pieces to put it all together into one pseudo- carpet like structure.
Now, you might be wondering, “Wow, that’s a lot of challenges!” Yep, which is why teaching a toddler class will make you a better teacher.
I’m not even joking. Having to teach toddlers means you will learn to be quick on your feet, use more gestures, problem solve, figure out how to use your voice and tone for discipline effectively in a classroom, and so much more. I won’t lie, teaching high school was a breeze in comparison to teaching toddlers, but I know for a fact that teaching toddlers made me realize how I could teach even upper level students better in so many different ways.
So while teaching toddlers requires a lot of work and just so much energy, it is worth while for me to see kids form an early and good relationship with English. I also appreciate how I’m teaching them, but they’re also giving me some hard earned experience to remember for future classes. And they’re just adorable, really, ya know, when they’re not crying and shouting.
Still, I wouldn’t trade all the drawings and hugs I get for the world.