Dear Faith, I’ve been caring for several 2-year-olds, and we’ve recently had a new 4-year-old boy join us. This 4yo is generally uncooperative, and the littler kids are starting to imitate him. When he gets into an activity he flows creatively with it, but transitions especially seem to be hard. His momma speaks quite angrily to him and I don’t want to do that, but he seems to respond to it and I find myself falling into that more and more. Do you have any ideas for us?
Having a four-year-old join your group of two 2-yr-olds is bound to be a big change! Especially if he’s an uncooperative 4yo. If he’s used to responding to his mom only when she has an angry voice, you’ll need to let him know that things are different at your house, and that he needs to respond to your requests the first time (even if that’s not what he does at home). Then, help him follow through every time. The trick is to be firm because you’re doing what’s right, not because you’re angry. Help him get into the habit of doing what you ask, every time. So how can you do this without getting angry? Here are a couple of tools for you:
One great tool for you to use will be imagery. Before a transition starts, gather the children and say something like this: “We’re about to get ready to go outside. Today, I’d like you each to get ready like a little squirrel. Now, this is not just ANY squirrel. This is a squirrel that didn’t get ready for winter in time, and now a big snow-storm is coming! He needs to gather his things, and run outside, and collect as many acorns as he can before the storm arrives! Can you each do that? (look around and see if you’ve engaged the imagination of all of the children. If he’s looking bored, continue on with your ‘story’ for a few more minutes) “This squirrel was so busy playing that he FORGOT to collect nuts! He ran up and down the trees, he jumped from branch to branch, he walked tightrope along the power lines. And then suddenly, he felt a cold, cold wind. (put your arms around yourself and shiver.) He looked up and he saw the storm clouds gathering. And then he saw a snowflake. He knew he’d have to hurry! You are each a little squirrel and this is what happened to each of you! When I say GO, you’ll each get your shoes on, and your hat, and run outside as fast as you can, and collect your food. Are you all ready? Ok, one…two…three…GO! Go-go-go!” And help them scurry around, run outside, and collect nuts. If you don’t have any acorns in your yard, ask them what the ‘nuts’ will be, and see what they come up with.
Don’t do rushing stories every time. The next day might be a bunny who is collecting dandelion leaves to take to his sick grandmother, etc. If you’re about to wash hands, you might tell a story about a little raccoon who loves to have everything so clean, and who washes his hands, and washes his food before he eats it…he’ll even wash a fish that he just caught! Then have one boy come at a time: “Come, little raccoon! What food are YOU washing?” Have him tell you, and show you how he’s washing his fish, or apple, or whatever, as he washes his hands. The next day might be a baby otter who is learning to swim (have your hand be the otter, swimming through the water). You don’t need to come up with something new every day. You can use the same story for a week or two or three if they like it, or you can have two or three stories that you rotate around.
Engage his Help
If you go through all this trouble and your big boy won’t go along with you, help the littler boys do it, then tell him, firmly but kindly, “You can come and wash your hands yourself, or I will help you.” Then, firmly but kindly, help him. The next time, try bringing out another of your tools: enlist his help as a Big Kid. Pull him aside before you start, and say, “What story do you think the little boys would like to hear THIS time?” Have him help you come up with ideas, then choose one, and say, “Yes, I bet they’ll like that! Let’s see.” Call them over, and tell the story, and then while they’re washing their hands, or getting their shoes on, or whatever, look over at your big boy and give him a conspiratorial smile, like, “You and I know this story is just helping them get excited. You and I are a team.” And give him some way to help you: he can carry the towels, or get every child’s hat for them, or whatever. He may need some acknowledgement that he is much bigger and more capable than the littler boys. If you and he can be a team together, this may help him feel special and engage him in a new way.
If you invite him and he chooses not to engage, then you’ll need to firmly but kindly ‘help’ him do whatever it is, and then brainstorm for a new idea for the next time. He needs to learn that you do your best to make it fun, but even if he doesn’t go along with your fun, the thing will still happen. As your relationship develops, he should be able to relax into your authority. Putting in the work up front will be worth it in the long run.
Warmly, ~Faith Collins