Natalie Baginski, head of school at Toddlers on the Hill, joined us Thursday, November 30th for an hour-long “Ask Me Anything” session with Primary parents. Natalie’s advice is included below – we hope you read along and find answers to your big toddler questions!
AMA with Natalie Baginski
Primary Parent: Hey Natalie – thanks for taking the time to do this. My question is: What exactly do Montessori toddler classrooms do differently than other play-based childcare settings?
Natalie: In Montessori environments you will find the trained teachers prioritize independence, stewardship, respect, and care of self-others-environment in a way that reflects the values and principles laid out by Dr. Montessori. The items available for “play” will often lean toward practical life activities and the “toys” will be chosen carefully and will be self correcting and non-plastic materials.
Just to add to that, positive discipline is a mainstay and children are not “corrected” but rather supported by the modeling of desired behavior. Teachers remain behind the scenes and don’t “play” with the children; they model careful use of materials and they observe how the child uses materials, to glean insight into a child’s development and needs.
Primary parent: Hello Natalie, I have a 5 yr old boy who’s birthday just passed this Monday and a 3 yr boy who will be 4 in March, they have such a tough time spending quality time together without competing or arguing..it can get really overwhelming. I want to trust them together without having to worry if within the first 5 minutes they’ll start to argue or complain about one another…how would you recommend handling situations like this?
Natalie: They are in two developmentally different phases, so I would guess the five year old expects behaviors the almost three year old is not yet capable of. I wonder if helping the boys establish ground rules and then sticking to them as long as it takes might offer a rudder? If something is “not available” because brother is using it, or if the game is for two people but one person doesn’t want to play together, what are the choices? This might be laborious on your part, but observing and identifying consistent issues that come up, and then establishing some social norms for your household might help.
Primary Parent: I know toddlers are learning self regulation, but I have SUCH a hard time with tantrums and meltdowns. Any advice to help me stay calm? 🙏
Natalie: Those moments are not easy. One thing to remember is that your child cannot learn during a moment of stress so it’s not the time to teach. What little prefrontal cortex is there is totally offline. It’s the time to be the adult in the room who can be gracious and courteous, and wait it out. Allow. Breathe. Let your child be in a meltdown.
When the moment has passed, then your child will be able to hear you, connect with you, recover, and maybe even learn from the experience. The learning is in the repair, and that all comes after the meltdown. The more severe the meltdown the more your calm is needed.
Primary parent: Hi Natalie! What strategies and considerations might you offer parents to help toddlers cope with the increase in social activity and sensory overload during the holiday season?
Natalie: People, places, routines and rituals are key for young children, as far as their feeling comfortable with the activity they are invited into. Limiting long parties and multiple stops, shopping trips, and disruptions in routine and sleep schedule are a good idea.
A toddler can be initiated into the hustle and bustle of holiday activity in a warm, calm, and collected way and the parents’ calm and stress level probably needs more attention than anything else. If it’s too much for us, it’s going to be too much for a toddler. We can ask ourselves what activities and trips and visits are truly worth our time and we can chose activities and rituals that are good for the whole family and that could be repeated each year.
Traditions that are fun and healthy can stabilize us (and toddlers) during such a busy time. So if a yearly trip somewhere, or a yearly party, or shopping adventure is made navigable with routine and ritual, the child experiences it not as chaos and change, but routine and ritual. Even my youngest toddlers come to school talking about the trip to grandma, or the drive to see the lights, or what have you, and they are eager and excited!
Primary Parent: How can I find a balance between fostering independence for my toddler, but making sure he doesn’t get TOO frustrated?
Natalie: If you know your child can do it, let the child do it, but always be there to offer moral support or a little “scaffolding”. It’s a tricky thing because you want to foster independence but you also didn’t feel right standing by while your child struggles. Sometimes at my school we say, “how about I put the zipper together and then you pull it up?” Or “I’ll get your socks ready and you can slide them on”. Some children have a very low frustration tolerance and if that’s the case we want to observe closely and make sure we’re not pushing the child over the edge.
Primary parent: Can we talk toileting? Potty training is not going well. Should I worry?
Natalie: The last thing ever needed, ever, when it comes to toileting is worry! So no, you can relax and breathe 😊 . Do you have a small basket in the bathroom with diapers, wipes, underwear, and a change of clothes?
The idea is to “prepare the environment”. Have all essential things ready at the child’s level so if she says, “I want underwear” you can point to the underwear and invite her to take them, then let her put them on, or if there is an “accident” you can say, “that’s ok let’s use a wipe to clean up and you can get clean underwear.” If the environment is right and your child has confidence it will happen at the right time.
Primary parent: Hello! Any simple suggestions to build vocabulary? Our toddler is starting to speak and we want to support language learning as much as possible. Speaking of which, we’re a bilingual family and my husband speaks his language and I speak mine. Does that sounds like a good approach? Thanks again.
Natalie: Speak slowly, in complete simple sentences and try to cut out non essential talking. Also, speak when you are not also doing something else. If you want to say, “I’m going to mix up the salad with this large wooden spoon” speak the sentence, and then mix the salad. But talking and action at the same time are not ideal for toddlers. Choose if you want to be heard or watched but just choose one. I think if we all cut out about 50% of our words our toddlers would have an easier time hearing our words and complying with our requests. Slow, simple, complete, necessary.
Primary parent: Our daughter is 20 months. She’s in a Montessori toddler classroom. Her teachers say she’s doing great. We see a lot of emotional outbursts at home though. Should we talk to her teachers or do you have any ideas why we might see this behavior at home? Thank you!
Natalie: She is using the part of the brain that controls emotion and movement, and her “will” has not yet developed, and life is demanding and complicated, so it makes sense that toddlers occasionally freak out. Some have a low frustration tolerance, others get overstimulated, and some have learned that outbursts brings goodies and attention.
Rather than focusing on the meltdowns maybe you and the teacher could agree to observe carefully for a couple weeks then come together and compare notes about what precedes the outbursts. Also keep in mind, toddlers usually behave much differently at school and the teacher might simply not be privy to these emotional outbursts. Talking would be advised for sure; use your Montessori guide as she is there for you just as much as your daughter 😊
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