My second son recently turned two. Friends have commented that my first son skipped the terrible twos. They presume my professional skill set will get us through them again. I don’t fancy my chances. This series of articles presents ten tips for negotiating this time with small ones. Know that with every strike of the keys, I remind myself that advice is easy to give and hard to follow. I will be attempting to practice what I preach this coming year: wish me luck!

Imagine you have a job doing the filing at a lawyer’s office, everyday you pop paperwork into its rightful place. You’re good at it. Then one day you happen to be in the reception when the receptionist is away from their desk and you answer a ringing phone. For reasons unfathomable to you, this gets you an instant promotion to lawyer and you are expected to try cases! Unsurprisingly this is very disorientating and very stressful, you often end up in a heap on the floor wishing it would all stop.

This would never happen in the world of grown-ups, but it is a common experience in the world of two-year-olds. Moments ago they were babies, or little toddlers, with no language. We, as grown-ups, expected to supervise them all the time and to be in full charge of their emotional regulation, rocking and shh-ing, the crying baby, sweeping up the toddler who had just fallen over into our arms to kiss the bump better. But, the minute they begin to use language, our expectations shift. We immediately presume they are capable of the sorts of skills that other language users have available to them.

I used to work in a special school, many of my students, though of primary school age, were not confident language users. And because of the nature of schools and the compulsive need to assess everything, (the memo about not fattening a pig by weighing it never reached the DfE) I had to become a pro at assessing children’s language skills. Both their ability to input language and their ability to output language.

One of the things I used to look for in these assessments was how many pieces of information per utterance a child could handle. For example a request to “pass me the teddy” could be counted as three things to remember: it is about the teddy, the teddy needs to be passed, and it needs to be passed to me. It’s really quite a lot for what appears to be a simple enough sentence.

This morning in our household, sentences such as “It’s time for nursery, you need to put your shoes on, otherwise we will be late, can you find them?” Could be heard. If I asked you now to count how many key pieces of information are in that sentence you would have to pause to do it wouldn’t you? What if I gave you another sentence to do as you were calculating that one “Come on, we have to get in the car, your brother has his shoes on, where are yours?” It gets a bit much doesn’t it? The ability to output language nearly always exceeds the ability to take language in.

What sentences is my two-year-old saying?

He says things like “Look, Beetle, Wow!” and “Cake, my turn?” (Said with great hopefulness).

Remember the ability to output nearly always exceeds the ability to take language in.

We, the grown ups around him, have jumped from viewing him as someone who does not use language, and using our words to create sound baths to soothe him, but without expectation that he would understand them, to viewing him as completely linguistically capable. Not only linguistically capable, but also completely able to reason, and to do all of this at the speed of an adult. (Timing is something we will look at in the next article, but for now let’s stick with the complexity of these sentences). Not only is it not possible for him to live up to our expectations, it is also very overwhelming for him to try. (A lowly file clerk, you might be flattered by the instant promotion to lawyer, but you would also be very overwhelmed).

In my last article, I pointed out that communication is an act that happens between two people, I drew a parallel inviting you to consider meaning as water in a cup, and the act of communicating as the passing of that water between cups. This is about measuring the size of the recipient’s cup. We are holding pint glasses, but two-year-olds have only thimbles. We need to pour carefully and judiciously.
Listen to their utterances, notice how much information they contain, how complex they are. (My two-year-old is not using any contingencies in his sentences, in the main they contain a topic and an action – “beetle, look” “cake, eat”) The ability to output language almost always exceeds the ability to input it, so if I am being reasonable I will offer him only what he can process.

It can feel as if you are being curt when you curtail your language to meet a person (of any age) where they are at, but it is kind, and that kindness will read in your tone. If you bark your concise instructions then curt you maybe, but if you pour them gently, then there is a good chance they will be received. Often I find I need just one word, said with the invitation to curiosity that I talked about in the previous article, to direct my two-year -old on his way:




Of course I will still use the more elaborate language around him, how else can he learn it if he does not hear it. The distinction is I will not be expecting him to act in response to it. It will not be his job, until he is ready for it. For now, I know he is the filing clerk and I’m helping pop the files away.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in
mainstream and special school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings”, “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia” and “The Subtle Spectrum”. Plus three inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Spike and Mole”, “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I” which all sell globally and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, “My Mummy is Autistic” which was foreworded by Chris Packham.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Website: thesensoryprojects.co.uk  

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