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Use Your Words? A Preschool Director Says Toddlers Don’t Have To

There's a better way to teach toddlers to express themselves.

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Enough already with “use your words.”

You’ve said it. I’ve said it. Even good preschool teachers say it. We all need to stop.  

I know it’s well-intentioned: Better to say something than hit something. It overlooks something crucial, though. When young children don’t use their words, it’s not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. We tell them to “use their words” when they’re frustrated and emotional — not the best time to search their inner toddler dictionary for le mot juste.

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Imagine you were learning a brand new language. You have about 200 words down pat. Then, your classmate snatches your sandwich right out of your hands. You struggle for the right response. Just as you’re about to grab your sandwich back (and maybe smack the thief), your favorite teacher yells: “Use your words!”

Maybe it would help if, instead, your teachers gave you the exact words to say, in their simplest form. They’re your teachers. They’ve been speaking this language for years. They can give those words to you as effortlessly as they can say, “Use your words.”

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The next time your child is so perplexed that she gives up on verbal communication, ask yourself instead: “What words does this child need?” Go ahead and provide the exact words in their simplest form. Say it in the tone you want your child to mimic. If you have a toddler, be prepared to do this all day long. Interpret their behavior and provide the exact missing language in its most basic form. All day long. You’re welcome. Believe it or not, if you put in the time now, it gets easier.

The single best way to encourage our children to express themselves is not screaming “Use your words!” It’s to listen. Listen like you care, but also listen for moments when they need your help to express themselves. In my younger preschool classroom (with 2- and 3-year-olds), it’s all we do: interpret behavior and help our students articulate their wants, needs, and ideas. You have to be on your toes with the little guys, ready to remind them how to express themselves appropriately at every turn. As children get older, you can shift from providing them with the specific words to asking them what they can say to fix things.

We all want our children to use their words. They’ll need your help to get there, though — so until that time comes, let them borrow yours.

Tom Limbert is a preschool director, parent educator, and author. His latest book, Most Valuable Dad: Inspiring Words on Fatherhood from Sports Superstars (Chronicle Books), includes a foreword by Dell Curry and reflections on fatherhood from the likes of Lebron James, Natalie Coughlin, and Tom Brady. Learn more about Tom at parentcoachtom.com.