Changing one tiny word

Changing one tiny word

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When toddlers resist limits, validating their big feelings goes a long way. For example, when a child doesn’t want to come indoors or wash up for lunch, we may tell them, “it looks like you really want to keep playing outside!” This helps because they feel understood. But what if you could make one tiny change to your wording for an even more powerful effect? Believe it or not, swapping out one barely noticeable word can make a world of difference.

Replace “but” with “and” to help your toddler navigate limits.


Let’s go back for a moment to the example where the child doesn’t want to come inside.

In the first place, outdoor play should be available at a Montessori daycare whenever weather and common sense allow. The Montessori approach allows the child to choose his preferred work as well as his preferred workspace.

That being said, there are times when the children need to come inside. Whether it’s circle time or time to wash up and have lunch, limits on time outdoors are inevitable!

Imagine that a toddler has played outside all morning. She has happily watered plants and spent time playing the chimes in the garden. For whatever reason, it’s time for her to come inside.

Cue meltdown.

Even if you give a five minute warning and play a special chime at the same time each day to signify the end of outdoor activities, there will still be some kids who some of the time cannot deal with the transition. That’s normal and OK and the best thing you can do is stay calm while empathizing and confidently enforcing the expectation.

Often guides will respond with something like:

“You had so much fun outside today! It sounds like you’d like to stay out there longer, but now it’s time for lunch.”

The great thing about this statement is that it begins by clearly articulating just what the child is feeling but cannot put into words (hence the tantrum). Toddlers want to feel heard and understood, so one of the most powerful things we can do is give them their words.

The other very effective part of this teacher’s statement is that it ends with a restatement of the limit. She empathizes with the child without adjusting her expectations.

Now, read it one more time with an emphasis on the conjunction:

“You had so much fun outside today! It sounds like you’d like to stay out there longer, but now it’s time for lunch.”

And now read it again with the word but replaced by the word and:

“You had so much fun outside today! It sounds like you’d like to stay out there longer, and now it’s time for lunch.”

What difference does this little change make? When we use the conjunction, but, we subtly imply that the former statement supersedes the latter. You feel this way, but something more important takes precedence.

When we consciously choose to use the word and here, we give equal weight to both statements. The child’s big feelings stand alone and separate from the unwavering second statement.

Do little kids really notice the difference here? Though it may be subtle, yes—because toddlers are black and white thinkers and because they are in a sensitive period for language acquisition where they’re keenly aware of our words. Moreover, our intentions come through when we carefully choose our words. Our mindset shifts when we select our words with purpose, and that translates directly into how we reach the little ones under our care.

So try it! Next time you need to remain firm on something a student resists, validate their feelings and restate the limit, making sure to connect those two statements with and instead of but!