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General Guidelines for Caregiver Interactions with Toddlers

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The toddler age begins when a child achieves walking and ends when the child is 2 ½ to 3 years old. Children in this age span still enjoy sensorimotor play such as touching, hearing, tasting, smelling, pushing, lifting, pulling, and dropping. They are also developing more complex ways of playing (Maxim, 1993), by using speech as a way of organizing their play and engaging in symbolic play. Toddlers’ increased physical independence is accompanied by a desire to be more autonomous in deciding what they engage in and when.

The four interaction patterns developed during infancy (i.e., eye contact and shared reference, communication loops, adult-to-child speech, and verbal mapping) are also important interaction patterns during toddlerhood. Eye contact and shared reference continues to be the basis for establishing a communicative interaction. This interaction becomes more complex due to the toddler’s short attention span and energetic exploration of his environment. The caregiver must closely monitor the toddler’s attention and make adjustments in the interaction to either maintain that attention or to allow the child to move on to another appropriate activity. For instance, when an adult is sharing a storybook with a toddler, the toddler may lose interest in the interaction after only about a minute. In the example that follows, Lisa is sharing a board book on animals with Joey.

Lisa: Oh, look! Here’s a lion. GRRR GRRR [pause]

Joey: [smiles, points to lion]

Lisa: Yeah, grrr. A big yellow lion. Let’s see the next page. [turns page] Oh, here’s the monkey. [makes monkey sounds; pause]

Joey: eee eee [turns page]

Lisa: Oh, look at the lamb. Baa Baa [pause]

Joey: [points to lamb] Baaaaa (hears garbage truck rumble by outside the center, looks at window; turns book over to back cover and starts to leave)

Lisa: All done! That was a good book!

In this example, Lisa accepted Joey’s decision to end the storybook sharing. Lisa realized that Joey’s short attention span was characteristic of his developmental level and accommodated this during her interaction with him. Lisa and Joey’s storybook interaction also illustrates a pattern of establishing communication loops as Lisa paused after speaking to provide opportunity for Joey to respond verbally, nonverbally, or in both ways. Lisa’s speech was characteristic of adult-to-child speech because it was short and not complex syntactically. She also focused on items pictured in the book rather than talking about events or animals not in the immediate context.

During an adult–toddler interaction, providing wait time is critical to encouraging a toddler to respond. When toddlers do not respond quickly to an adult’s utterance, the adult’s reaction may be to “fill in the blanks, answer all the questions, and even comment without leaving a pause” (Manolson, 1992, p. 7). This lack of sufficient wait time will discourage a child from responding, because the adult continues on as if no response was expected.

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