Infants and Toddlers

Mother holding toddlerLong before babies can use words to tell us how they feel or what they need, they communicate through their actions (e.g., facial expressions, sounds, and body movements). At first, they react immediately to any change in their bodily experience or in their environment. They grimace, cry, and squirm. As adults help them manage (regulate) their reactions, babies begin to gain increasing control over their own bodies. For example, babies progress from loud vocalizations and crying when they are hungry to a more developed behavior of gesturing toward the breast or bottle. They later work up to other strategic behaviors, such as crawling to the refrigerator, and initiating basic verbal behaviors, like asking for the "ba-ba" at around 12 months.

Getting older alone is not what brings about children's increased ability to regulate their own reactions and find increasing success in communicating their own needs. As infants grow and develop, all their abilities — approaches to learning, cognitive, language, perceptual, motor, social, and emotional — become more sophisticated and complex. Toddlers begin to understand the effects of their actions on others as they become more aware of the peers and adults in their world. For example, a toddler who takes a toy from a peer may then attempt to comfort her as she begins to cry or run to an adult in distress. Toddlers may use words such as "mine" and "no" in claiming or protecting ownership of toys. However, they may also use physical behaviors such as pushing, hitting, or biting to protect that ownership. With adult support and patience, toddlers begin to develop social skills as they create and recover from such conflicts in their play.

Little girl cryingSome developmental shifts in young children create periods of behavior that often perplex and challenge adults. Between 7–9 months, as babies are firmly establishing their sense of object permanence, they may develop anxiety around strangers. They may become fearful and upset when their parents leave them, even in very familiar settings with trusted adults. Between 18–21 months, as the central nervous system is undergoing developmental changes, even the calmest of toddlers may suddenly, and frequently, have "meltdowns" that result in behaviors like falling to the floor, crying, wailing, and kicking. During the second year, as toddlers have big ideas of what they can do and very few words to help them get it done, they may suddenly turn to biting as a strategy. These behaviors are challenging but are part of normal development for that age.

Early Head Start in Action

An Early Head Start program in California uses a primary caregiver system for infants and toddlers. Each teacher is assigned consistent, primary responsibility for no more than four children to promote continuity of care for each child (45 CFR §1302.21(b)(2)). This relationship-based system is the foundation for providing guidance in all behavioral issues. Caregivers who can read children's cues, know the children best, and have trusting relationships with their children can guide and redirect misbehavior most effectively. Children are assisted through consistency. Their age and the individually appropriate guidance they get from teachers provide children with the stability to control their own behaviors (e.g., biting, hitting, etc.).

As we care for infants and toddlers in groups, we anticipate disagreements and scuffles. For example, we expect babies to be comforted by being held and easily redirected to other experiences. We expect toddlers to become upset and fuss, and even to fight. With adult support, they should be able to recover and return to play with the same friend who upset them moments before. Infants and toddlers will have unhappy moments; but with support, they can usually rebound, reengage in what they were doing, and enjoy being with adults and peers. Establishing this emerging emotional, behavioral, and social control depends in part on the child's early relationships. It may be influenced by the child's temperament and other factors, such as family and cultural expectations for behavior or the presence of a possible developmental delay or identified disability. Head Start infant and toddler programs consider these factors as they promote children's social and emotional development through intentional interactions, planned and individualized learning experiences, and through their work with families.

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