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Feature Articles—Child Care


Getting My Baby or Toddler Ready for School? Are You Nuts?!?!

Sara Gable, Ph.D., Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


If you are the parent or early childhood educator of a baby or toddler, you may cringe at the thought of sending your little child off to school. How can you help now when it seems so far away? Have no fear! There are many things that you can do now to prepare children for school. In fact, one of the easiest is to communicate often with little ones and help them with their communication skills. Communicating well with others is an important part of succeeding in school. Children need to listen to their teachers and understand what they are saying. They also need to get along with other children and use words to express their thoughts, needs, and feelings.

Lucky for you, most children are born ready to communicate. To hold up your side of the conversation, you need to understand how babies and toddlers communicate, actively encourage them to communicate, and look for patterns in the way they communicate.

Babies tell us about their thoughts, needs, and feelings with coos, gurgles, and grunts, facial expressions, cries, body movements like cuddling or back arching, eye movements such as looking towards and looking away, and arm and leg movements.

To encourage babies' communication, quickly respond to their efforts and use a "sing-song" tone of voice, exaggerated face, and wide-open eyes. Babies love looking at faces and when you make your face interesting to look at, babies will pay attention. Babies also like hearing songs and feeling your gentle touch or tickle. Be sure to make the most of the times when you are close and facing a baby, such as during diapering and feeding.

Pay attention to each baby's unique style of emotion expression, activity level, and social nature. Some babies are quiet and watchful and prefer less adult interaction. Other babies are emotional, active, and seek continuous adult attention. Some babies are in between. Be sensitive to each baby's personality and work with your baby's preferences; this makes communication smoother for everyone!

Give meaning to babies' communication efforts. Because babies are not yet talking, we need to do some guessing at first to understand what they are telling us. If you gently tickle a baby's chin and the baby responds by frowning and turning away, give the baby's effort meaning and say, "Oh, you're frowning. I don't think you like it when I tickle your chin; I'll stop." If you softly sing and show the baby an exaggerated face, and baby responds by smiling and reaching for you, say, "Look at that smile! I think you like this song, I'll sing it again and then try a new one."

Babies need to know that their efforts to communicate are heard and understood. Take time to learn how babies tell you about their thoughts, needs, and feelings. When babies experience your warmth and attention, they form a sense of trust in the world.

As babies grow into toddlers, they communicate in new and different ways. Toddler communication begins with a combination of gestures and grunts and then moves to one word sentences and, later, two word sentences. Toddlers also use their positive and negative emotions and body movements to tell us what they are thinking and feeling.

To encourage toddlers' communication, take time to build sentences around toddlers' efforts. If a toddler points at the refrigerator and grunts, say, "Are you telling me that you are thirsty? I'll get you a bottle." If during snack a toddler says, "More," you can say, "Are you hungry for some more apple? I'll slice another one." When you respond and build sentences like this, toddlers know that they are being heard and understood. It also provides an opportunity for you to introduce new words into the child's vocabulary. Keep a word diary of toddlers' growing vocabulary and share it with others so that familiar words can be used and new ones introduced.

Because toddlers are starting to understand the order of things, use daily routines as an opportunity to talk about the sequence of events. When getting toddlers dressed, play a game of "What comes first? Pants or diaper? Socks or shoes?" Also, because toddlers are trying to do things by themselves, create opportunities to help them establish independence. For instance, during play, let toddlers control the action and decide what is going to happen. You can act like a sportscaster and describe exactly what toddlers are doing and how. "Gabriel is driving the car quickly across the couch…now he's making a sharp turn around the pillow. Oh no, the car has crashed into the back of the couch! What is going to happen next…?"

As with babies, toddlers need to know that their grunts, gestures, words, and actions are heard and understood. Use your interactions with toddlers to build their vocabulary and become skilled communicators. Being able to effectively communicate allows toddlers to understand what is asked of them. Also, it helps toddlers to better express their own thoughts, needs, and feelings.

Few things in life come with so small a price tag and so great a reward as communicating with the babies and toddlers in our lives. Children rely on adults to help them learn about themselves and to make sense of the world. Helping babies and toddlers to develop effective communication skills is an important tool for school, and for life.



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Last update: Tuesday, August 25, 2009