I have to admit, homeschooling with toddlers has not always been smooth sailing.
Our 15 children are spaced an average of 21 months apart, and between some there were only 14 months. At one time we had three under the age of three, and another time we had five under five!
Before I go too far here, I want to make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed my tiny tots. I do not agree that there are “terrible two’s” or three’s (or any other age, for that matter). Each stage of childhood has its charms and wonders, and toddlerhood is no exception. Yes, little people mean messes and noise and potty training, but I count it as a privilege that I was there to witness the faces of my children as they began to unfold the mystery of simple, everyday experiences. I believe enjoying those tender, happy years helped me to become a better mother. Their cheerful voices changed my mood each morning and kept my heart soft throughout the day. I am a better person today due in part to their happy influence.
They were all little explorers and scientists, and their creativity became evident from the time they could scoot on their tiny bellies. This meant that nothing in the house was safe—if it could be taken apart or “altered” in one way or another, it would be! They also tended to be emotionally needy, especially during the morning hours.
Of course, their scientific exploration often challenged our peaceful homeschooling experience. Each one had ways they contributed to a measure of chaos and frustration. Many times there were actually two or more who conspired together to liven up our potentially productive days.
My goal through it all was not only that the older ones learned in peace, but to ensure the little ones felt safe and included. Along the way I learned strategies to help us create an environment of learning and love for everyone concerned, even though the machine never ran perfectly, and it seemed adjustments were being made almost daily. I know there are many reading this who are struggling right now with that very same balance, and so I hope what I share will at least spur others on to try some suggestions that I offer, or at least to prayerfully explore answers on their own.
First of all, a tiny child who is well-cared for is much easier to deal with. A major portion of frustrating behaviors can be alleviated by making sure the small child is:
I am the type of person who really, really needs her sleep, and I am certain some of my children are the same way. Going to bed earlier the night before can be helpful, or even allowing the tiny one to sleep in a little longer if the night before was rough. Napping mid-morning at a certain point backfired later in the day, since we usually had quiet time in the early afternoons, so there were times when we simply had to “tough it out.”
Little ones can sometimes be so full of energy early in the morning that it is hard for them to sit still long enough to fill their bellies. Then, just about time for learning, they become hungry and grumpy. They often needed someone to come along-side and make sure they ate well at breakfast, and then it was also necessary to have a snack on hand that would help alleviate their hunger at the mid-morning mark (something that added nutrition, such as fruit, cheese sticks, etc.).
Toddlers experience a number of minor illnesses that older children do not suffer from as their immune systems are developing. This is never pleasant, but especially challenging when one is attempting to trudge ahead in homeschooling during the winter months. I tried to be well-stocked in all the home remedies, medicines, and comfort foods that were necessary during these times. I also tried and make sure Mommy’s lap was available for cuddles and hugs when needed, often rocking a feverish child while going over some math, phonics, or other exercise.
Clean and comfortable.
No one likes to feel dirty, and even tiny children can dress or undress themselves so that they are either too hot or too cold. Taking extra time and care to make sure a small one is feeling comfortable and cared for will reap benefits throughout the day. Keeping a little “kit” with personal hygiene items for each child can help, or at least having a central place for combs, brushes, etc. I made it a point of pride that my children never walked around with dirty faces or runny noses. I made it a habit to wear an apron with pockets which housed brushes, barrettes, and tissues (or wipes).
Feeling secure and included.
This one is so important! I believe a lot of the harassment most parents experience with their toddlers is caused by a sense of insecurity accompanied by a sense that they are outsiders in the life of the family.
There are a number of elements which contribute to this situation. Primarily, I believe we as adults forget what being so tiny feels like. Even grown-ups feel stress in unfamiliar surroundings or during times of great upheaval. To a young child, just about all of life is unfamiliar. Add to this the internal struggle going on in their minds; they want to free themselves and become independent from their mothers, and yet sometimes they wish they could crawl back into her arms and never leave.
While too much coddling can ruin a child and stunt their physical and emotional growth, too little will leave the door open for emotional “melt-downs” and an over-expression of aggressive and violent behaviors.
There were many times I was tempted to turn on a cartoon or set the child in front of a computer until our “school time” was over, but I knew this would simply boomerang and come back to haunt us all as the negative behaviors would become exaggerated when the screens were turned off.
Instead, I found ways to minimize the factors that would contribute to insecurity by:
Sitting and cuddling at least once in the morning.
This was especially important to a few of my children who are more sensitive than the others. Just a few moments of rocking, stroking, even singing would be sufficient for the rest of the day, something that seemed an interruption at times, but what a relief when I finally gave in and sat down!
Keeping to schedules.
Having regular bed, wake-up and meal times can do so much for the psyche of a toddler. Knowing they will sleep in the same bed, sit in the same chair to eat, and that Daddy will come home at the end of the day gives them great comfort and security.
If there is a great interruption or change in our regular schedule, there are ways to help. Singing a familiar song together such as “Twinkle Little Star” or “Jesus Loves Me.” Sitting and looking at picture books together or reading a familiar story over again are also great ways to reattach emotionally so that security is restored.
Also, explaining what is going on and why is a great way to help a child feel included so that they don’t feel it necessary to get a parent’s attention by misbehaving.
Of course, once all these areas have been addressed, there are also fun, practical ways to keep a young child occupied and “learning” along-side everyone else, and they don’t all have to be extremely labor-intensive, expensive, or messy in order to be productive. Here are a few which I have used over the years:
There are many different forms of these, including ones made with Ziploc bags. I preferred to use the clear plastic shoe-box size or other containers. In one we might have Duplo blocks, in another wood blocks, in still another some dolls and doll clothes, or maybe some action figures or tiny cars and trucks. (Little Bins for Little Hands has all sorts of over the top ideas.) These boxes were only for school hours and were not to be played with at any other time.
Oh, what a wonder this stuff is for young children! I would give them a tub or two and some plastic spoons, forks, and knives and watch them go to town for quite a long time.
These have been around for ages—my own grandmother had memories of her mother giving pages to her to paint way back in the 1920’s. Each picture is printed with colored ink that is activated by a brush dipped in water, which gives young ones the thrill of painting without all the mess. I found a nice Miss Kitty book at the Dollar Tree and Melissa and Doug have a line of them.
I often tied an apron around a little person and gave them a spoon of peanut butter and a piece of bread to make a snack for themselves and maybe even a few of the other young children. This stirred up their own natural desire to
It was fun to give them some plastic containers, or even their own plastic play dishes, and have them wash them in the sink or even outside on the deck with a container of warm, soapy water (not that practical in wintertime, but in early fall or late spring this can really do the trick!). Of course, this meant that someone needed to look in on them from time-to-time, since they would often think of so many possibilities, such as washing family pictures, or the toilet, etc. as an extra “help” to Mommy!
Giving a young child a few cheap workbooks (like color/activity books found at the dollar store) he can fill in with scribbles, along with a box of his own crayons, pencils, etc. (as long as he is past the age of eating them) and then placing these items in a special desk or place all his own can help him feel included and productive as well.
In good weather, a nice back yard is best for this. Ours is small, but we put in a huge sand area with swings and a wooden fort that was easy for even a small person to climb. If the weather was bad, I would “volunteer” an older child to take all of the younger siblings into a different room to play “Ring Around the Rosies,” or “London Bridge is Falling Down.” We also had the children go into a large room in the basement and run races by hopping on one food, doing the crab walk, or something else that was silly and .
Another thing that helped was to limit the “scattering field.”
Situating a learning area next to a large play area was optimum. This way the little ones were where I could check on them easily and they did not have access to things such as the front door (to take an impromptu walk), or the kitchen, or anything else that could lead to disaster. Our current home has a 900 square-foot basement that is split up into a few larger areas. Over the years I have been able to put our supplies and learning table close to a play area stocked with all the items mentioned above.
In homes without basements, I used child gates to keep the little ones in one room or area at a time.
I hope you have found these ideas helpful. Our youngest child is now seven years old and our toddler times are far behind us, but we miss them. I believe the way we enjoyed our children is having an effect on the way they enjoy their own youngsters. What a joy it is to us to hear the reports of the sweet and funny antics of our grandchildren and to think back on those precious years.
Don’t hurry the days, or they will be over before you have a chance to enjoy them!