Strive to Thrive: Train Your Toddler’s Brain, Part 3

Strive to Thrive: Training your Preschooler’s Brain, Part 3

Last fall, I wrote about self-regulation, the important “brain training” that is needed for children to be competent and confident.   Parents can help their babies develop this important skill with warm, responsive, and predictable parenting.  When your children are toddlers, you can continue to train their brains by developing your own calmness, telling your toddler what to expect, and teaching them how to behave.

Pre school

  My kids are in kindergarten now.  I know, as they are spending more time in school, that this brain training is getting to be even more important.  Kids need to do a lot of waiting, paying attention, taking turns, and listening in school, and when they are preschool age, we can train their brains to help them get ready for this.

  Remember that self-regulation builds on itself.  This means that the same tools you used when your children were babies and toddlers (warmth, calmness, structure, teaching, exercise, etc.) can help train your 3 and 4 year old’s brain.

Modeling, or “walking the walk:”

  As our kids get to be 3, 4, and 5 years old, we can keep their brain-training going with two very important tools called “modeling” and “scaffolding.” These words are fancy words for “walking the walk” and “giving just enough help and challenge


Jamal is four years old, and he and his Daddy are playing Candyland.  Jamal is having a tough time whenever he gets sent back to the beginning of the board; sometimes he even has a tantrum and runs away from the game.”

  What should Jamal’s Daddy do?  He could tell Jamal to stop being a baby, or explain that it is no fun to play with kids who have tantrums, but 4-year-olds don’t really learn from hearing, they learn from seeing.  But Jamal’s Daddy can model how to handle losing a game:

“Jamal’s Daddy pretends that he is worried about losing the game.  He says – out loud, ‘I am happy that I’m winning.  I sure hope I don’t get the gingerbread man card (that’s the card that would send him back to the beginning).’  Later he says to Jamal, ‘What should I do if I think I might lose, Jamal?’  Jamal and his Daddy come up with some ideas about how to handle losing (breathe, keep playing, stay calm).  Later, when he does get a card that sends him back, Daddy says, out loud, , ‘I am so mad.  I wish I could yell and run away.  But I am going to take a breath and keep playing.’ 

  Modeling, or role-modeling, can be even simpler and easier.  When you handle your frustration without yelling, when you use good table manners, when you say, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to your child, even when you stop at the crosswalk and wait for the walk sign, you are modeling good choices for your child.

Scaffolding – balancing help and challenge:

  Scaffolding is a little more tricky.  When we “scaffold” for a child, we have to figure out just the right balance of help and challenge based on that child’s age and abilities.  Here is an example:

Sara has twins, both aged 5.  Her son, David, is very good at getting his backpack together in the morning before school.  She just has to remind him to do it and help him talk about what has to go in the backpack; he is able to do the rest.  But her daughter, Missy, who is the same age, has a much harder time with this job.  Missy gets sidetracked easily, has a hard time organizing her things, and gets frustrated when she cannot fit a toy into her backpack.  Sara knows that she can simply talk David through this job every morning, but she has to help Missy more by standing close to her, handing her each item, brainstorming about how to fit the item in, and praising Missy as she does a good job handling the task.  Later in the school year, Sara may be able to back off the amount of help Missy needs, but right now, she has to “scaffold” Missy much more at backpack time than she does David.

clip_image003  Different kids need different levels of help for different tasks.  The goal is to help your preschool-aged child stay at a growing edge of confidence and skill without taking over a task when he or she can handle it.  Scaffolding can mean talking to a child as they do a tough task – “Hang on Taisha, your turn is next.”  It can also mean giving physical support – holding hands while stopping at a street corner—and  providing a child with new skills, like giving them a puzzle or paper and crayon to write on while they wait at a store or a restaurant.  It can mean doing part of a complicated task and letting them do a simpler part – “Why don’t I fold the paper for you and you can cut out the shape?”

  Scaffolding is skill buil

ding, and skill building takes practice.  The more your child can be gently challenged to do new things well, and the more you can start to back off with your help and support as they get confident and competent, the more trained their brain can be.

    Finally, it is important to remember that your child’s need for scaffolding can change.  When they are tired, sick, or hungry they may feel challenged by a situation they can normally handle well.  In those times, you might need to provide a bit more help and support than they need when feeling rested, fed, and well.



   In the next and last segment of this series on training your young child’s brain, we will talk about how to handle tantrums in the best way possible to help your child gain better self-control