Oh, Toddlerhood. The word itself is both endearing and terrifying. Toddlers are some of the sweetest most curious, adventuresome, hilarious, and strong dictators. They are such dichotomies. In the first three years of a child’s life developmentally its a sprint but littered with emotional ups and downs as they learn to use their bodies, their decision making and emotions concurrently and also, at times, unexpectedly. They are inconsistent (except when asking for a snack!) and can be sweet and compliant one minute and willful and angry the next. They are looking for the safety of boundaries on which they can depend. If you allow the waves of their emotional insecurity to rock your boat it will leave them feeling unsteady and scared instead of safe and secure. Parenting this age is a practice in loving consistency. That is why many parents shudder when mentally preparing for homeschooling with a toddler. It feels like parenting itself is enough of a challenge- then adding home education on top of everything feels an impossibility.
I remember when the girls were in second grade and Kindergarten. We would sit down and start “working on school” and I would realize a few pages into my read-aloud that two-year-old Grayson was missing. He was (and still is) my most active child which is saying a lot after Addison (our Gymnast). He requires the most movement and stimulation. He is curious and smart and independent. Somewhere between the ages of two and three, we went through a period of weeks where I would wake up (well after my little rooster) and walk out of my room in fear and trepidation. "Why" do you ask? Well, one morning I walked out to hear sounds of distress and the dishwasher running and also a strange glub-glub-glubbing. He had filled our dishwasher with Dawn (hand dishwashing detergent) and soap suds were pouring out of the dishwasher and filling the floor of our small kitchen. He was “helping”. One morning he experimented on how to fix our sugar ant problem by emptying various spices and pantry items onto the counter to see which ones would “kill the ants”. Public service announcement: salt, pepper, oregano, honey, and sugar do NOT kill ants. You’re welcome. One time he proudly showed me how skillfully he had poured the honey into all four of the compartments of his plate to the very tip-top. It was rather impressive. I was not that skilled in putting the honey back into the honey bear. Another time I became suspicious while helping Addison with math and went looking for our sweet, curious little scientist. He was standing on his toddler bed, in vain watching his stream of urine fall to his carpet. I noticed there were puddles in various parts of his rug. I calmly (not to my credit, I think I was in shock) asked him what he was doing. He answered that he was “trying to pee into my (ceiling) fan- but (his urine) keeps falling down every single time.” My child discovered gravity! Brilliant! Suddenly I realized that the wetness I had been sopping up from his rug the last few days had NOT been from his water cup. It was not going to survive the cleaning. We threw the rug away. It was several years before I decided the coast was clear and I could buy a replacement.
I share this with you because I get it. Really. Toddlers are amazing. And toddlers are A LOT. But, toddlers are not impossible and homeschooling with toddlers is not impossible. Bonus, you may come out on the other side with some hilarious stories!!
Here are some tips we have found after five toddlers.
1. Naps are wonderful. I understand some toddlers are super special and insist on skipping this vital part of the day, but for those who are still partaking, USE IT FOR SCHOOL time! Don’t worry about meal prep or laundry or anything else. You can do that with your toddler at your elbow. It’s much easier to work on education without interruptions every 10.7 seconds.
2. Prepare some healthy snacks. Snacks are your friends. If you are concerned about using food inappropriately, under-feed at meals, and work in that food during the morning and/or afternoon snack time. That will buy you a few minutes. Confession, I may have been known to nurse my toddler during read-aloud times-not for their caloric intake, but just because it kept them still while I was reading.
3. Reserve some special toys for school hours. Puzzles are great- but make sure they can do them independently. Play-doh is fun and messy- prepare yourself and your space, and make sure you are nearby to ensure no ingestion is taking place. Yes, every toddler tastes play-doh. It’s salty and NOT food. So, there’s that. Crayons and notepads are great too. They can “do school” with you. A basket of library books for their perusal is wonderful if you have a toddler that is interested in such a past time. Make a little tent or “fort” or pile some pillow up for a comfy place to read nearby (for supervision- in case they try to see if library books can rip too- they can unless they are board books.)
4. Give them a hands-on activity at the table with you. Picking up pom-poms of various sizes with tongs, or tweezers and moving to another container, having a sensory bin to play with, or paint with water on construction paper or color with water coloring books. Look on Pinterest for some fun ideas. Have them set up before you sit down to help your school-aged child.
5. Include them! If you do circle time with verses, songs, rhymes, have them join you! If you throw bean bags for math facts, have a bean bag to throw with them. Have them sit on your lap for read-aloud time. Give them color coloring pages related to what you are teaching about. Ask them questions. Give them “school supplies” to play with. They love feeling grown up!
6. Be fully present during school hours. Put away your screen until after learning time. If you are distracted, your kids will know and become frustrated. Your brain will be in two places and you have to be on top of your game.
7. Finally, adjust your expectations. There will be interruptions, and temper tantrums, and potty training accidents. It will happen right in the middle of pre-algebra when you are searching your brain for those equations hiding in the deep recesses of your cobwebby brain. It will be frustrating. But being a toddler is hard. And being a toddler requires a lot of reassurance and attention and hugs. Just because your attention is divided doesn’t mean they are any less deserving or needy of that time. These years are precious and vital to their development. Don’t make them feel like an interruption, a frustration, a problem, or something unworthy of you stopping and helping to solve a problem or clean up a mess. If you are having trouble managing your stress level- they know it. They feel it. Focus on being calm. Focus on what they need at the moment and make sure you are meeting your own needs so you can be fully present to meet theirs.
My suggestion is to sit down with your school-aged child and let them know your limitations. Let them know there will likely be interruptions and that is ok. Let them know they will have to practice patience and that you’re in it together. Let them know you may need their help as you meet the needs of all of your children. Making sure their expectations for your learning time are realistic is helpful before you face the terrible monster of unmet expectations. If you go into your time expecting the unexpected, it will be better for you in the end. On those days when everything falls apart, take a break. Go for a walk. Call in reinforcements. Pray. Do yoga. Have a tickle fight. Make a fort and climb in with your kids for a while. Order pizza. Eat chocolate. (Just not all on the same day!) And then start all over again. You got this Mama. You can do it. One day, one hour, one moment at a time. And when you have a good day? Celebrate!!!! Post it all over social media. Call your mom. Treat yourself to that Starbucks coffee. You are doing it!!!