Dealing with Difficult Toddler Behavior II

Diff This is a follow up post to the Dealing with Difficult Behavior post. I want to discuss some of the techniques that we use in our home. They are based on our understanding of the Montessori philosophy. I will reference the videos I posted in the first post in discussing them, so if you have not watched them, you may want to. The comments in that post are also priceless and contain a lot of wisdom from other mothers around the world so do take the time. Sit back and grab a drink since this is a little long 🙂

First of all, what do you consider difficult behavior? It is different for everyone. For me, it is behavior that hurts the child, others, and the environment (including the materials). In my child, it is usually in the form of throwing, biting, hitting and climbing inappropriate places.


There are four main things that I think parents and teachers should know when dealing with difficult behavior. The first two console me and help me find patience, while the other two guide me in dealing with these behaviors.

  1. Brain Development: According to Lise Eliot in her book “what’s going on in there”, The 2 sides if the frontal lobe are essential to social and emotional development but they play opposite roles. We feel good in the left side, and feel bad in the right side. The two sides generally hold each other in balance except for moment of extreme happiness or sadness where one of them dominates. Why does this matter? Well, she explains that these two sides do not develop synchronously but instead trade-off in growth spurts with each one taking a turn. Lise suspects that this back and forth might explain how a toddler who seems so wonderful one week can see difficult and infuriating the next week. We have all experienced this. So sometimes, when it seems like the level of difficult behavior is ridiculously high, find patience in the possibility that it might be as a result of a growth spurt.
  2. Universal: It happens with every child in every continent on the universe. Your child is not difficult. He is just going through the phases to learn how to be human that every child goes through. It might help to phone a friend and trade stories.
  3. The 3 stages of obedience according to Maria Montessori: This requires its own post, but just to summarize:
    1. First stage: The child will only obey his inner needs and so will only obey external directives if they are in line with his needs. An external observer might say the child obeys sometimes but not all the time. This period lasts until around 3 years old.
    2. Second stage: The child will obey when there is an enforcer or external force present. At this stage the child obeys every time he is told to. This stage starts at around age 3 and if given the right conditions, will gradually move towards the third stage
    3. Third stage: The child will obey whether or not there is someone there to enforce. This is the stage where self-control has been acquired. Not everyone reaches this stage but it can be reached as early as age 6.It is important to know about these stages because it helps us realize that the environment, our limits and requests of the child in the toddler stage have to support or be in line with his inner needs. It also helps us understand why the child struggles with obeying us sometimes and so helps us with our expectations. Finally, it helps us know what the goal for discipline should be.
  4. The child’s developmental needs: Knowing the child’s stages of development and his needs at each stage allows us to support him properly and in so doing reduce the need for acting out. It is with this knowledge that we prepare the environment.

The Prepared Environment

One of the main causes of difficult behavior is frustration. This can be frustration from an environment that doesn’t meet the child’s needs, an environment that he doesn’t fit into or materials that are not appropriate, to name a few. To avoid the frustration from an environment that doesn’t meet the child’s needs, we should create a prepared environment.

This environment meets the child’s needs and supports his development. In the first three years, the child has a strong need to move, and so the prepared environment should provide space and opportunities for both gross and fine motor movements. It should provide him with opportunities to use his hands in different ways.

Materials and activities in the prepared environment should encourage concentration, which also reduces difficult behavior. Materials provided should be challenging but not frustrating. In the videos, you can see throwing resulting from his frustration with the material in several instances: the triangular prism, the magnetic cufflinks box stuck to the lunch box and the order when putting back the puzzles. While the materials should be challenging, we should take care that they are not frustrating. This is a thin line that requires observation. I will discuss this more as we go along.

Once he can walk, the child wants to help, to do more things for himself, to exert maximum effort and to do “hard” things. The environment should allow him carry heavy things, climb and throw safely, and generally exert himself as needed. He should be involved in activities that contribute to the home, whether it is preparing food or helping with the cleaning and maintenance of the home. This builds his self esteem and makes him feel like part of the home. It also reduces the need to act out and seek for notice in negative ways.

Another important need during these early years is order. There should be a place for everything and everything should be in its place. Remember that external order leads to internal order especially for the child. Even as an adult, I sometimes find myself getting easily frustrated, discouraged or just in a negative mood when my house is not in order. This is even worse for the child.

By providing an environment that meets these developmental needs, we minimize the need for the child to express his needs in a way that becomes “difficult”.

The prepared environment should fit the child. Furniture, utensils and tools should be child sized and allow for independent use. He should be able to get in and out of his chair independently and move them around to suit his needs. This also allows the child to experience natural consequences, which I will talk about in more detail later. When the furniture is the child’s size, it moves when he bumps into it and without you having to say anything, he realizes the need to walk gently. The prepared environment should minimize the need for “NO”. Materials which are out of bounds to the child should be removed from the environment and out-of-bound areas should be removed or minimized. Instead of “NO,” there should be alternatives when possible. A hard “NO” reserved for those times when there is really no choice or the request/behavior is dangerous. So you cannot jump on the table but you can jump on the trampoline… I always tell my husband that we the number of NOs we say to the child before he turns to 2 is directly proportional to the number of NOs he will say to you during that period of opposition that some refer to as the “terrible twos”

Basically, by its design, the prepared environment minimizes difficult behavior.

Basic Needs

No matter how prepared the environment is, if the child’s basic needs are not met, he will display difficult behavior. A child who has not had enough sleep, is dehydrated, malnourished or uncomfortable in one way or another will act out. This is especially true when the child is not yet able to identify or communicate his needs.

Let’s revisit the second video. For most of the video, you can tell why he is throwing but towards the end of the second video you may notice that he seemed disoriented. He first tries to climb the shelf and then climbs the table and proceeds to take of the picture from the frame. This was very odd behavior that I had never seen it before. It took me a while to realize he was probably thirsty/dehydrated. In most of his pictures, you can usually spot his water bottle, but while watching the video for the third time, I realized it was missing. We always keep it on his table because sometimes he doesn’t realize he is thirsty until he sees it, and when he is thirsty he usually acts out in ways that cannot necessarily be linked back to thirst. He had been working for a while before I started recording those videos so my guess is that by that him he was very thirsty. I generally monitor his sleep and meals so when he acts out randomly, my first step is usually to offer water. Almost always works.

Comfort is a basic need that is sometimes hard to discern. Discomfort can be as a result of wet diapers or something not as obvious like teething or a mosquito bite. These can lead to undesirable behaviors and require patience and discernment on our part.

As caregivers, it is important for us to make sure the basic needs are being met and provide ways for the child to identify and communicate their needs. We can have water and a snack available in a place that the child can take it when needed. Before the child can talk, we can teach the child signs to communicate his basic needs. We should also observe for signs that he is tired or sleepy, hungry, thirsty, needs to use the toilet etc. and work with him to meet this need. It is important to name it when helping the child so that he begins to associate the name with the need e.g. “I see you’re thirsty, let’s get some water.” Or “I see you are tired, let’s pack up and you can take a nap.” Biting drastically reduced once I thought my son how to make the sign for “eat.”


Observation is one of the most important tools available to us as caregivers. I call it the Montessorian’s super power. It helps us to know when the prepared environment is meeting or not meeting the child’s needs. It also tells us when the child’s basic needs are met or not being met. It also helps us diagnose difficult behavior. What at the triggers? How does the child handle frustration? Is his behavior really as a result of frustration or is he just testing limits? Is he figuring out cause and effect? We can usually answer these questions by observing.

There are different ways to observe. As long as he is not hurting himself, I sometimes just wait instead of acting to understand the situation better. I have some days when I try not to interfere at all and just observe him for most of the day. These days are the most beneficial because I have been observing before he starts acting out so I can usually trace the trigger. Sometimes I videotape so that I can go back and analyze the situation. It is important to not only observe and analyze the child’s behavior but also our response. Is it abating or escalating the situation? Is it modeling the right behavior to the child? Could the child have gone through the situation without our help? What could we have done differently? These are some of the questions I try to answer when I observe and analyze myself.

Observation is our first step in dealing with ongoing difficult behavior. Once we have observed, it is time to figure out how to react. Our reaction is based on what we discover is the cause of the difficult behavior. Some of the ways that we can react include meeting the child’s needs, modifying the environment, redirecting, providing help, changing the situation and providing natural or logical consequences. I will discuss these using some examples from our home:

Biting In my son I have discovered from observing him that biting is usually as a result of his basic needs not being met. He is usually sleepy, hungry or thirsty and I can usually tell which one it is. So how do I react when he tries to bite me? I first stop him: “I won’t let you bite me.” Then I provide vocabulary for what I believe he needs. “I think you are hungry and would like to eat (I also make the sign for eat), let’s get you some food.” At this point he usually starts walking towards the kitchen.


  • Stop/discourage the behavior
  • Acknowledge and provide language or a means for him to communicate his needs
  • Meet the needs

Throwing can be for several reasons. A lot of times it can be the child just needing to throw or to test. He might be experimenting with cause and effect or just following a need to throw. In this case, I would redirect. “This ball is for the tracker. Pick it up and put it back in the tracker.” Once he has done this, I then redirect. “You can choose a ball/bean bag from the basket and throw it over there.”/It is not safe to throw here. You can throw over there.” I would then walk with him over the basket/safe area.

In other cases as is usually the case with my son, throwing is as a result of frustration or anger. The frustration is usually from a material that he is struggling with. You see this several times in the video with the triangular prism. I will mention again that the line between challenging and frustrating is thin and requires observation to determine when a material crosses the line. I have observed him use that material several times and I know that he is able to use it most of the time. I initially had the material on the shelf without the triangular prism and after while, he stopped choosing it. He only regained interest when I added the prism. So based on my observation and knowledge of his ability, I think this material is challenging. Others may not agree. Anyways for a challenging material, I would first ask the child to pick up the material that he threw. “The prism is not for throwing. Please pick it up.” I would then provide vocabulary for what he is experiencing and offer help. “It’s a little challenging and you are frustrated.” (I missed this step in the video… I’m a work in progress too J) “Would you like some help?” Remember to only provide the help that is needed and not take over the activity. Sometimes the child doesn’t want help and might be done. This is fine too. I would suggest he put the material away. “Are you done? Would you like to put it away?” – There is an instance of this in the videos and he does put it away. There are times when the child is obviously done even if he does not realize it. In this case, I don’t give a choice. “I think you are done, lets put it away and work on something else.”

  • Stop discourage behavior/Let the child pick up
  • Provide vocabulary for feelings or experience
  • Offer help (indirectly also teaching how to ask for help)
  • Give help, redirect or end the activity
  • Step away and observe

Hitting in our house is cause by a variety of reasons most frequently it is discomfort that he cannot communicate. For example, 70% of the time, right after he hits you, he burps. In these cases I say “You should not hit me, if you need to hit something, you can hit the cushion. Other times he hits out of anger, excitement or no apparent reason. I hold his hands and say “I’m not going to let you hit me. Hands are not for hitting. You can touch me gently” Sometimes he just hits me again and I hold his hands and repeat myself and then add I’ll hold you until you are ready to touch gently. He usually waits a bit and then stretches his hands to touch me gently or waves to say sorry. We sometimes have to repeat this 4-5 times but he is learning to control these impulses and we are dealing with it less often. You can often see him catching himself. When we first showed him how to say sorry for hurting us (by hitting or biting), I wasn’t sure he completely got it but recently he says sorry without prompting and the other day, his friend was crying* and he said sorry. At that point I knew he really understands what sorry means.

Also, when he wants something and is upset because he cannot have it, redirection usually works. After I have told him he cannot have the item and maybe offered an alternative, he might still be crying or striking out with his arms or other displays of anger and I would say “Can you please take this bottle to the trash can” or “please give this to daddy” or “would you like to choose something from the shelf”… it works like magic. He likes feeling useful. He usually perks up immediately and goes to work.

Natural and Logical Consequences vs. Threats: I think the most common form of discipline in my country is the threat “I will beat you oh!” I hear it everywhere and from every kind of person. It makes me laugh every time because it is so overused and a lot of times the child knows you are not going to beat them so it really doesn’t mean anything. I prefer to use natural and logical consequences. In the second video you see a natural consequence in action. He did not push in his chair and so almost tripped over it. He pushed it in immediately. We usually don’t have to set up natural consequences. They happen organically as a result of the child’s behavior and the prepared environment. If you run indoors, you might fall. If you are rough with your favorite toy it might break etc. A lot of times we interfere before the child experiences this consequence and a learning opportunity is lost. Unless it will pose significant danger or hurt, I usually allow him experience the natural consequences of his action. In other cases where there are no obvious natural consequences or when they are too dangerous or hurtful, I employ logical consequences. If you throw your toy multiple times for no reason, it tells me you are done with it or are incapable of handling and caring for it right now so I will put it away until I feel you are ready. I usually give one or two warnings and say what the consequence will be each time and I always follow through. This is so important. We should not say things we cannot follow through on. The child will realize very fast that your threats are empty.

The Adult’s Role

Set Reasonable Limits and set them early: The prepared environment is set up to allow the child to have freedom within reasonable limits. Based on Maria Montessori’s recommendations and our needs as a family, our only limits are that actions should be safe, kind and respectful to others, the environment and ourselves. As parents, we try to be our best selves for our children and provide the best materials and so expect that they try to be their best selves, and respect us, and the environment we strive to create. For us these are reasonable limits. We don’t say don’t climb or don’t throw because be know he sometimes has these needs. However the limits are where and how he does this. We offer choices that meet his needs within our limits.

I think it is important to set these limits early so that they are part of the child’s routines and expectation from the start. As an example, I worked in a school where the children were not allowed to come into school with their toys and I watched many tantrums over this. I was determined not to have to deal with this so from the beginning, I required that all toys be put down/away before we leave the house. I would help him put them away or wait till he did before we leave. Now I don’t have to say anything. As soon as I say we are going out, he puts away whatever he’s holding and we don’t have to deal with meltdowns.

In attempting to set these standards, parents often fall into two pitfalls: children are told every minute of the day what to do, and thus have no practice in making decisions of their own; or, if they are confronted with consequences for wrong behavior so threatening that there is no real choice for them to make, these children will continue to depend completely on their parents and never develop a capacity for guiding themselves…” -Lili E. Peller

Be Consistent: Once limits have been set, it is important to be consistent. This is another reason why it is important to set reasonable limits. It is hard to remain consistent otherwise. Children are smart. If they realize the rules change daily, they don’t follow them. Lack of consistency also affects the child’s needs for order and so in itself can lead to difficult behavior. The child who is testing limits and finds them to be inconsistent will continue testing them.

Model the Right Behaviors: As adults, it can be so easy to adopt the do as I say but not as I do attitude. This does NOT work with children in the early years. They will do as we do and so it is important to model the behavior we want the child to exhibit. On this note, I think it sends a very conflicting message to the child when we hit them as a way to teach them what to do or not to do. How do you act when you are tired, frustrated, angry etc.? Remember you are teaching your child how to act when he feels the same. It is important to evaluate and modify this attitudes. It is a work in process for me. Sometimes when I am tired, I need a break from everyone and just want to be alone and of course that when my little guy wants to cling on and I find myself saying “leave me alone” or “go away” until I catch myself and think about how I want to be treated. It is a work in progress but I try to model being calm, taking deep breaths and explaining nicely that I need a few minutes. It is important for children to see us in these situations and it is ok to say “mummy is frustrated/tired/upset right now and just needs a few minutes to calm down.” You can then model sitting down somewhere to cool off.

“He needs parents who set standards, and who sincerely represent these standards. It is through relationships with people of integrity that children become truly disciplined. Nothing else will take its place.” – Lili E. Peller

Be Patient and Stay Calm: It can be so hard but it is so important to dig into our reserves of patience and remain calm when dealing with difficult behavior. It sometimes helps to remember that the child is going through self-construction. Think about a construction site. It takes a lot of big movements, machinery, pounding, and breaking down, reorganizing etc. before you get that beautiful house. It is also very noisy. The difficult behavior is part of the child’s process of building himself into a beautiful being and we have been called to help that process. It is not always fun but it is a privilege. Don’t raise your voice. Be firm but kind.

Above all, Love!: “Guidance and authority are things children expect of their parents and without which they cannot get along. However, their most important function is to love the child and thus give him security and confidence; to make him feel accepted and wanted, and even needed, in his home. This is the foundation for true discipline, otherwise it remains external pressure.” – Lili E. Peller

When dealing with the child’s behavior, it is so important that our actions reject the act but not the child. It is important to label the act and not the child. The child is not difficult, the behavior is. We have to show the child that we love him regardless. Apart from building the child’s confidence, it also prevents the child from manipulating the adult and his feelings/love using his behavior

Other Considerations

External Influences: It is important to remember that in the period of the absorbent mind (age 0-6), the child absorbs impressions from every one and everything he comes in contact with and uses it in his self-construction to. I mention this because we can sometimes model all the right behaviors but then our child is exposed to violence or other negative behaviors on TV, from friends, nannies and other external factors. It is true that we cannot put the child in a bubble but when we are aware of the effects these exposures can have on the child, we can minimize the opportunities for exposure.

Concentration and Interruption: Thanks to my training, we don’t experience this much in our house but I want to mention it. Children can act out when they are interrupted especially when they are concentrating. Unfortunately, this happens frequently for some children. It is important to respect the child’s work and not interrupt when they are focused. We all know how it feels when we are in the zone and then the phone rings or someone bothers us. It is the same with children. We should try not to over-schedule them and provide stretches of time where they can explore and play uninterrupted. If we need to go, instead of stopping them abruptly, it helps to give notice. “You have 10 more minutes, you may want to round up.” While a toddler might not understand the warning in the beginning, with consistency, they start to get it.

Some people may wonder “All of these to deal with misbehavior? Why not just flog/spank the child or yell? It is faster and more effective.” Well let me ask you some ask you some questions of my own.

  • Is it? What are the other effects of this yelling spanking?
  • Are we raising peaceful humans?
  • Is the child learning the right way to deal with difficult behaviors with his peers or with his partner when he becomes an adult?
  • What about the child’s self confidence and self-esteem?
  • What about his will? Is it something that should be broken?
  • What about when you are not there to flog?
  • While punishment tells them what not to do, does it tell them what to do?
  • Is it ok for him to flog/hit his friend or sibling when they are being difficult?
  • Do we want human beings who are controlled by external factors or internal factors? Who obey without thought and respond to violence with obedience?

“The basic error is to suppose that a person’s will must necessarily be broken before it can over, meaning before it can accept and follow another person’s directions. Were this reasoning to be applied to intellectual education, we should have to destroy a person’s mind before we could give him any knowledge” – Maria Montessori

I should also mention that in the same way that I don’t “punish” or flog for bad behavior, I don’t reward good behavior. It is the expectation and the norm so it might be acknowledged verbally if I see the need to highlight it but I generally just treat it as the norm.

My son is only 14 months old so I have quite a while to go on this parenting journey. This is not the easy way but it works. He is still in the phase where his inner drive overrides outside direction but I see him evaluating his choices even when no one is watching. I see him fighting his impulses and I believe he is developing self-discipline, which to me is the most important kind of discipline.

*The crying was not caused by my son. In our culture we say sorry when we see someone sad or upset whether it was caused us or not. It is kind of a synonym for “I hope you feel better”

If you made it to the end, congratulations and thank you for reading! There’s so much to say about dealing with difficult behavior and the development of discipline. It was really hard to put all my thoughts together in a concise way but I really wanted to be thorough and hopefully at least one person finds this helpful 🙂

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Please leave a comment. Live a Good Life!

2 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult Toddler Behavior II

  1. I love this post. The part that hit home for me was about modelling behaviour and how the child absorbs this. Just yesterday I heard J yelling loudly and when I came up to see what was wrong he was shouting. I said “what’s wrong” and he said to me “Joshua is angry”. I sat with him and said “it’s okay to be angry, are you angry because your building fell over” and he said “yes, but it’s okay I build it again”. Undesirable to yell but good processing and identifying the emotion. Modelling appropriate ways to deal with feelings and situations is definitely so important, thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts. In the last month or two Lotus has started throwing tantrums: wanting something, but then not wanting it when it is given to her then wanting something else but again not wanting that when it is also given her, not wanting food, not wanting water, not wanting cuddles, not wanting mummies milk… When these situations arise the only thing that works for us is sitting down beside her and meditating with closed eyes, telling her calmly that Mummy & / Daddy are going to meditate until she stops crying”. She very quickly stops crying and after a few seconds of quiet we open our eyes and say ‘thats better! now… lets play some blocks etc” but then she starts again with a cry that is clearly intended to test our boundaries. So we say “Ok, looks like we will have to meditate some more”… shortly after which she will stop crying and we will give her attention again but then she will do another fake cry and we will have to meditate again. It usually takes 3 or 4 short meditation sessions before she stops her tantrum altogether and will then be content to choose from the food / drink / activity options available. I am so glad that we have worked out something that works for us as it has made those difficult situations so much more pleasant. Not only does Lotus come out of her frustration so much quicker but I also get a few precious moments to meditate.

    Also, on another note – did you see that I replied to your comment and tried to your questions about Lotus going nappy free at 13 months? I will write another post with more details soon but in the meantime I hope you find my answers helpful.

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