Positive Relationships

How to Respond to Toddler Tantrums in Nursery Settings

For some children the word ‘no’ is like a red rag to a bull. But with a careful and measured approach, even the most awkward toddlers can be helped to change their ways, says Paul Dix…

Davina stands in front of you, a caricature of hostility. Arms folded and tone adjusted, she screams defiance as if it were her birthright. To your reasonable request for her to stop throwing paint/fists/Ryan, she takes immediate and dramatic umbrage. Her screw-face reveals a burning anger that she is not getting her own way.

Davina likes to get her own way. A lot. You suspect Mum says ‘No’ very rarely, and even then not for long. Davina’s daily routine is to flounce into the room and do whatever she chooses without any regard for you or the other children. She wears the kind of designer winter coats that make credit cards wince, and Mum has one to match. The incessant spoiling at home is causing chaos in the nursery. Now Davina stands in front of you again, tempestuous and indignant. She has pulled all the artwork off the wall in a destructive rage. You only asked her to change activity. What now?

How do you respond?

A Get angry – meet Davina’s behaviour head on. It is time to stop all this nonsense.

B Change direction – nudge Davina into a better routine. See if you can develop her calmer, gentler character traits.

C Ignore – Davina is taking too much attention away from the other children. If she wants to throw her toys out of the pram, let her. But she can do it on her own.

The consequences

A: Get angry

Davina is not used to being told ‘No’. She is even less used to the ‘no’ being immovable, definite, certain. Your anger causes even more confusion. She fights back with blood-curdling screams of “No, no, no!”. There is foot-stamping and attempts to get out of the door before she finally comes to rest under a blanket in the home corner. You knew that being angry with her would result in an outburst. You wait until you feel she is ready to talk calmly and approach her in a spirit of reconciliation. Davina is not interested in your plan. She has decided that she will not speak to you, look at you or interact with you again. You leave her a few minutes longer and return. Her determination does not waver. Surely it’s not possible that she can remain in this state until home time?

Your worst fears are realised as Mum arrives to see the state of her daughter. She reacts instantaneously. In a hail of over-egged sympathy she sweeps Davina up, wraps her in Lagerfeld and stands in front of you, arms folded, with a screw-face that is frighteningly familiar. “What have you done to Davina!” she screams. Now you have a bigger problem.

Talking behaviour

● Is it useful if Davina knows you are cross about her behaviour?

● What does Davina learn from this episode?

● How do you prepare parents if you need to hand over a child who is upset?

B: Change direction

You identify transitions between activities as the most urgent new routine to teach. You introduce a rotation of activities on the display for all the children to see. This allows you to give Davina a five-minute and two-minute warning before changing activities. At the faintest sniff of defiance you use a range of diversionary tactics: encouraging her to lead the movement from one activity to another, asking her to check the new activity and report back to the group, and giving her instructions to relay to the others.

By lunchtime on the first day, the old routine is dominant. You break down her defiant strop by distracting her negative behaviour with a clear reminder of her positive behaviour: “Davina! You moved from the number table to the home corner so well this morning – you were happy, smiling and kind. That is the Davina I need to see now. Wipe your eyes, unclench your fists and I will give you a minute to try again.” The reframing gently encourages Davina to see herself as compliant rather than confrontational. Each time she makes a successful transition without point-blank refusal you write her name on the board with a big smile alongside. You promise to share this good news with Mum at the end of the day. It is a difficult few days, but slowly the new transitions become more frequent and there are less showdowns.

Now all you have to do is deal with getting her in from play without a 10-minute stand off in the Little Tyke car…

Talking behaviour

● Are there behaviours that you would not use distraction to try to adjust?

● Why don’t behaviour strategies always work straight away?

● Can you encourage Mum to see the value of recognition and not just material reward by sharing good news with her at the end of the day?

C: Ignore

You walk away. It is a strategy you have not tried before and the outcome is by no means certain. It takes a few moments for Davina to realise that she is arguing with an empty space, and she starts following you around the room, weeping and screaming in equal measure. You continue to ignore her, so she ups the ante and grabs hold of your jumper. Although it is getting a lot harder to do so, you carry on ignoring. She carries on tugging. When the tugging proves ineffective the tantrum develops into hitting, and you cannot pursue the strategy any further. Other children are becoming upset at the spectacle and you cannot drag Davina around the room in her desperate state.

In the end it takes more than 20 minutes to bring Davina down and mop up the tears. She loves the attention but because you feel guilty you don’t mind. In fact Davina enjoyed most of the experience. She was able to escalate her behaviour without challenge, hold the attention of the group throughout, and experiment with tantruming that she usually reserves just for home. You may now have invited more dramatic behaviours into the nursery.

Talking Behaviour

● Is it cruel to ignore children who are trying to argue with you?

● Does ignoring minor behaviours help to take attention away from them, or does it simply encourage an escalation?

● How can you calm the rest of the children if one child is going off the deep end?

Which approach did you use?

A: Your behaviour style – Fuel on the flames

Davina desperately needs an excellent model of adult behaviour to mimic. Getting angry is as useless a model as spoiling her with rewards. There is no shortcut to improving behaviour. Getting angry may feel right at the time, but this can never be tit-for-tat behaviour management. You are the adult and need to work harder to control your own behaviour to show her how to modify her own.

B: Your behaviour style – Ducking and diving

You are used to playing the longer game with behaviour modification. Your subtle interventions are gentle enough for Davina not to feel confronted. A plan for changing behaviour is always going to be more effective than rushing in with an emotional response. You may have to work harder and show some resolve, but day by day you will teach Davina a completely new set of expectations. She will slowly adjust to behaviours in the nursery that may be different to those that work for her at home.

C: Your behaviour style – Risky Rita

When you ignore an adult they very quickly realise that a message is being communicated. The same cannot be said for the average two-and-a-half-year-old. Used carefully and sparingly, deliberate ignoring can work, but the child needs to know what is going on. Turning on your heel and fleeing the scene with no communication at all is always going to cause the child undue anxiety. It could easily break the trust that you have nurtured with the child and cause a schism in the relationship that is difficult to repair. You need a strategy that deals with the behaviour and is kind to the child. Pure punishment has no place in the nursery.

Paul Dix is a multi-award-winning behaviour specialist and managing director of Pivotal Education.

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