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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!

The brain of a two-year-old is not the same as the brain of a grown up, but when children acquire language, the tendency of those around them is to assume that in sounding like us, they also think like us.

A two-year-old’s brain has far more neural pathways and connections than your brain. One little piece of information going in there can zip all over the place. This makes it a brain rich with fascination and interest in the world. It is a brain that renders the world in technicolour, high definition luminosity. But it is also a complicated brain to navigate in, because the multitude of pathways means that information can go zipping off almost anywhere.

Have you ever tried to plan an event that you are excited about and got carried away with a daft idea and needed someone to bring you back to the topic in hand, and refocus you? That is an every day occurrence for a two-year-old.

In this article, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the experience of the terrific twos, and that is processing time, i.e. the time it takes for information to flow through the brain.

All through this series, I have been talking about communication being a collaborative act, achieved between people as a team effort. When there is a communication breakdown it is not because one person got it ‘right’ and another ‘wrong.’ It is because as a team they either succeeded or failed (and blaming or crediting one person on the team with that is not helpful). I have likened it to water being meaning, and communication being the pouring of that water from one cup into another. Well in this article I am going to extend that metaphor just a little more. Instead of cups, now think bottles, and the necks of these bottles are different sizes.

The quickest way to get the water from one bottle to the next is to pour at a rate of flow that exactly matches the neck size of the bottle. Imagine if this were a water race, an outdoor summer sports day type event: a relay with different teams racing to see who could transport the most water from one end of the field to another. If a team member with a big bottle and a wide neck tipped their bottle up over the bottle of a team member who was just holding a small bottle with a narrow neck, although some of the water might go into the receiving bottle most would spill on the floor and the watching crowd would shout at the player pouring the water to slow down. It would be obvious to bystanders that it was the pourer, not the receiver, who needed to adjust their behaviour.

Two-year-olds often find themselves as the receivers in this scenario, but sadly for them, they also often find themselves being blamed for the water on the floor. “Didn’t you listen to what I said?” “I’ve told you twice already”, “I’m getting cross now, I’ve told you to do this already!”

Yesterday my two-year and I were playing at quite literally pouring water from one receptacle into another. I have some gorgeous clear geo-solids that are great at developing awareness of shape and space and we do lots of pouring activities with them. I think I enjoy it almost as much as him. In our play, I passed him the half segment of a sphere. Two pieces of plastic clip together to make a sphere, it has a hole in the top that water can be poured through. I had handed him the half with the hole in, he began to use it to scoop water up to fill the other shape he was holding. He did not notice the hole in it, so as he scooped the water ran out on its way to the other shape and on each scoop he only managed to get a few drops into his receiving shape.

I watched, amused. I wondered how long it would take him to notice the hole in his scoop. It took 8 times of scooping, if I had timed it we would probably be measuring in minutes not seconds. I noticed it instantly, on the first scoop he made. My brain clicked into action: “Ah, I’ve given him the one with the hole in, it won’t carry water, he will need to switch it for a different one.” His brain took way longer to understand and process the situation. And it is the same with speech. If I say to him “Go and put your shoes on” and then watch, expecting an instant reaction I am going to be disappointed. He will not react, why not?

Is he being defiant? Is he considering whether to obey? Is he questioning whether he wants to put his shoes on?

No. He is doing none of those things. In fact, what he is doing is precisely what I want him to do: he is listening to my words. They are making their way through that neuronal jungle of a brain. They are locating understanding. They are matching that understanding up with what he knows about the world. They are beginning to instigate motion. Meanwhile, on the outside, I am still waiting.

What I do in this situation is often the difference between him getting in trouble, and having his self esteem slightly dented as a result of that, and him following the instruction and receiving praise for having done so, and learning about himself that he is someone who can do things. If I wait for the processing to happen, without getting agitated by my waiting, then there is a good chance that he will totter off to find his shoes. But, if I overlay this wait with further instructions, basically if I pass on my agitation to him, his ability to process what I said first time around will be compromised and he’s likely to crack under the pressure.

Think of the water and the bottles. I need to pour slowly and gradually. I need to be willing to wait the time it takes for the water I am pouring to pass through the comparatively tiny neck of the bottle that is receiving that water. The race is not won by me sloshing my water all over my team mate and running on without them. Communication is a team effort, and part of being on that team is showing an understanding for who your team mates are and what their capacities are. Many two-year-olds can play the communication game, but they are just starting out and we should not expect them to compete as adults!

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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