Little Kids

24 secrets of daycare teachers—steal their tricks!

We asked early childhood educators to reveal how they get our kids to eat their veggies, clean up their toys, go to sleep without a fuss and more. Here’s what we learned—and how you can steal their tricks.

24 secrets of daycare teachers—steal their tricks!

Illustration: Melanie Lambrick

"He had a great day," your kid’s daycare teacher beams. “He listened well, napped for three hours and ate all his veggies.”

Ever wonder why the child your daycare describes sounds nothing like the one you drop off and pick up every day?

There are good reasons the wildling you know at home is a model of decorum at daycare. No matter how familiar, it just isn’t home; kids are less likely to push the same boundaries. They may also hold in their angst until they see you at the end of the day—hence, the pre-dinner meltdown.

But there’s something else: Year after year, daycare professionals get up close and personal with dozens of babies, toddlers and preschoolers. This repetition lets them finesse their skills and strategies—that’s a huge advantage over parents, who get only a few kicks at the can, if that. We asked early childcare educators (ECEs) across the country to share some of their best tips and tricks for managing the toughest parenting challenges in the toddler-to-preschool demographic. Here’s what they had to say.

Transitions: Simplify your routine

For kids, transitions are a nightmare. “The art of preschool is the art of repetition,” says Maigualida Osorio, supervisor at Small Fry Preschool in Ancaster, Ont. Predictability feels safe, she says, particularly for kids who are pre-verbal or working on language skills. That sense of security breeds confidence in toddlers and preschoolers, and it’s for this reason that most daycares keep their routines as simple as possible, with consistent times for snacks, lunch, play and naps, day after day after day.

If you work full-time, it’s tempting to try to squeeze as many activities into your weekend as you can. But if possible, minimize the number of transitions in your day, and schedule your weekend activities at the same time your toddler or preschooler would be active during daycare.

Adorable little sibling brother and sister brushing their teeth while looking in the bathroom mirror. PeopleImages/ Getty Images

Capture your routine in pictures

Donna Freeman, director of Discovery Children’s Centre in Winnipeg, uses charts and illustrations to help her daycare kids visualize their daily routines, and parents can do the same at home. She uses an online program called Boardmaker to create charts with images of daily activities (play, eat, use the bathroom, sleep). Parents, she says, can personalize their charts further by using snapshots of their kids doing these activities.

High angle view of teacher showing animal chart to girl in preschool Maskot/ Getty Images


Give warnings

Being interrupted when engaged in an activity can be irritating to anyone, but for kids who don’t yet have the skills to manage their frustration, it can seem like the end of the world. Still, we don’t always have the luxury of moving from point A to point B on our kids’ time. So do what ECEs do: Offer a warning before the start of a new activity. Teachers at Freeman’s daycare centre will flash lights or sing a song to cue transitions. She suggests parents could do the same with visual or audio cues, like sand timers or a smartphone alarm. “Tell your child in advance that when the timer goes off, it’s time to clean up,” Freeman says. “Children accept transitions better when they know what’s coming next.”

Happy teacher talking to kids who are eating apples for their snack at preschool. Drazen Zigic/ Getty Images

Create the illusion of choice

A lack of control is a big reason some kids put up a fuss around transitions. Ashley Imrie, an ECE at Glenora Child Care Society in Edmonton, gets around this by offering what she calls a false choice. She’ll ask, “Do you want to wash your hands now? Or do you want to wash your hands in two minutes?” This diverts the focus from feeling out of control to feeling back in control, she says. “But the result is the same.”

A female preschool teacher helps one of her students build a tower using magnetic tiles. FatCamera/ Getty Images

Make transitions fun

Meike VanGerwen, an ECE at the University of Toronto Early Learning Centre, makes transitions easier by helping the kids in her care envision the future activity in a positive way. As she’s leading the kids through the transition, she might say something like, “What are we going to play with when we get to the playground?” Be creative and customize your comments to your kid’s interest. If your son likes cars, for example, but hates the idea of having to stop playing with his cars to have a bath, turn the bath into a car wash. “Children are incredibly creative,” VanGerwen says. “Use their imaginations to your advantage.”

A small child is climbing a children's sports wall. View from the back. Ildar Abulkhanov/ Getty Images


Feeding: Eat together

My kid will only eat four foods—and they're all beige. One reason many kids eat so well at daycare is because they see all their friends eating. That’s one reason (among many) to prioritize eating together as a family at home. Studies show that children who eat meals with their families are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits. At Hudson Bay Child Care Co-operative, all kids and ECEs sit down together for meals, family style. “Our kids help set the table; they dish up themselves; they pour their own milk,” says Sjuberg. This gives kids the chance to really immerse themselves in the eating experience. While she says they don’t force kids to eat, the opportunity to see other children and adults enjoying a wide range of foods encourages picky eaters to try new flavours.

Happy family having lunch together in dining room. Drazen Zigic/ Getty Images

Stop offering backup meals

At daycare, a meal or snack is served, and that’s what is available, nothing else (except perhaps fruit and milk). No amount of moaning and groaning will get them a different meal. So if your kid decides they don’t like what’s on the menu at dinnertime, let them know that’s all that will be available. You kid will get used to the idea that what’s on the dinner table is the only food on offer—and in the vast majority of cases, they won’t starve themselves. This may seem like tough love, but ECEs say kids rarely whine about what is served at daycare because they know there’s no point.

Two children making their sandwiches for lunch. SolStock/ Getty Images

Kid clutter: Use bins, baskets and labels liberally

Most daycares have the luxury of child-level hooks and cubbies, which makes it easier for kids to clean up after themselves. You can replicate this with labelled baskets (most daycares attach pictures of the contents to each bin to make it easier for kids). Put them everywhere: at the front door, in the kitchen, in the TV room and, of course, in the playroom, if you have one. Label hooks, and put a mat down for shoes. “Even a young toddler will get the idea,” says VanGerwen. “They’re learning to take responsibility for their own belongings and building the foundation for organizing their brain.”

Colorful mess of toys and the little child who made the mess Lisa5201/ Getty Images


Make cleaning fun

The imaginations of toddlers and preschoolers are exploding. Use that to your advantage, says VanGerwen. “Your shoes want to stay together when you’re not there, so put them beside each other,” she’ll tell the kids in her care. Get competitive and make cleaning up a race, or turn on some music and dance while you tidy. Count the items as you pick them up. Is your daughter an animal lover? Tell her she’s a zookeeper who has the very important job of putting all the “animals” in their cages for the night. Or say she’s a construction worker when it’s time to clean up the blocks. Whatever the mess is, associate it with something fun, VanGerwen says.

Father and little daughter cleaning the living room together Westend61/ Getty Images

Be specific with requests

A two-year-old won’t know everything that “clean up” entails. In her classroom, VanGerwen is as specific with her requests as possible. For example, “Clean up the toys you were playing with,” might not work. But “I see a yellow hula hoop over there—can you hang it on that hook?” should do the trick.

Young mother, woman, washing toys with her toddler son in a living room. Mladen_Kostic/ Getty Images

Whining: Ignore it

With so many little ones to care for at the same time, daycare teachers simply don’t have the capacity to cater to every outburst or demand. At home, your kid may refuse to go to sleep without two more stories, a glass of water, four trips to the bathroom and one last cuddle, but there’s just no way your daycare provider can do that. Instead, ECEs try not to acknowledge negative behaviours like whining. This, says Renée Clusiault, an ECE at Our Children’s Centre in Victoria, BC, gives little kids a valuable real-world lesson: speaking to people this way won’t get the result you’re looking for. Resist the urge to cater to your child’s tantrums. You might be surprised to see how short the tantrums become when your kid realizes they’re not getting anywhere with them. Once your child calms down, you can explain that speaking to people that way isn’t acceptable and talk about why they were so upset.

Shot of a little boy throwing a tantrum while holding his parent's leg at home PeopleImages/ Getty Images


Help your kid become more self-aware

Not all tantrums can be ignored, and some can even be dangerous—to your kid and to others. When that’s the case, you need to facilitate their calming down, and ECEs say the best way to do this is to bring attention to their physical body. This helps develop self-awareness, and it also causes a child to pause. For example, Clusiault will say, “I see you’re very upset. Your body is moving really fast and wild.” From there, a firm hug, a touch to the cheek or some deep-breathing exercises (in through the nose and out through the mouth) often do the trick.

Temper Tantrum Survival Strategies kate_sept2004/ Getty Images

Name big emotions

The windows of Shelly Sjuberg’s daycare in Hudson Bay, Sask., are lined with sensory bottles filled with coloured water. These act as both redirectional and calming tools, but they also help kids define their big emotions—an important first step toward self-regulation. On the front of the bottles are poems, such as these ones:

Green, green, green, I was feeling so mean. Green, I was feeling so mean. Grrr…

Red, red, red, I got a bump on my head. Red, I got a bump on my head. Ouch! 

When children act out, says Sjuberg, teachers can direct them toward the bottles. Children can shake them if they’re still really angry, tip them back and forth to calm down, and read the poems with their teacher to help process how they were feeling in that moment. At home, you can make your own bottles (even the least crafty parent can throw some water, food colouring and glitter in a water bottle and glue it shut).

Boy having a tantrum at home and mother trying to talk to him Hispanolistic/ Getty Images

Look for patterns and triggers

When Imrie notices repeat behaviours, such as a kid who never wants to go outside or always has a hard time sharing, she’ll pay extra attention to that child for the next week or two to find a pattern. Is there a time of day when a toddler is particularly whiny? Do tantrums take place just before nap or snack time? The answers to those questions, she says, are important clues that can help you prevent specific behaviours altogether. Once you determine the cause, you can take actions to eliminate the cause. It could be as simple as adjusting a nap time, removing your kid from noise, providing more frequent snacks or turning down the temperature.

Crying boy sitting in high chair with cereal puree on plate ~UserGI15613517/ Getty Images


Sharing: Create house rules and follow through

Daycares and preschools are governed by rules—rules that the kids, even the smallest ones, are well aware of. “We make sure the kids know what they can’t do,” says Sjuberg. “They can’t hurt each other; they can’t bite; they can’t kick.”

“Whatever the laws of your land are,” says VanGerwen, “you have to be able to define them and enforce them. The trick is determining what your laws look like and then following through.” In other words, at daycare, if kids aren’t allowed home toys, they’re never allowed home toys—the toy will be removed. If they aren’t allowed to throw sand, they’re never allowed to throw sand—the child will lose sandbox privileges.

Kids will try to push the limits, but they are also looking for limits, VanGerwen adds. She suggests creating your own set of rules. Make it a fun activity by writing them together on poster paper and putting them somewhere visible, like the fridge or a kitchen wall.

Adorable little boy smiling with happiness, sharing and giving doll or gift to cute girl, Pornpimon Rodchua/ Getty Images

Catch your kid being good

Not only do daycare teachers model wanted behaviour, but they use positive reinforcement to eliminate negative behaviour. For Clusiault, that means following up her requests (“I need you to put away your whining voice and talk to me in your speaking voice”) with positive statements when kids comply: “Thank you for asking me so nicely. I love that!” If your kids have a tendency to hit out of frustration, then be sure to shower them with praise when you catch them asking nicely for a turn or showing empathy toward a sibling.

Toddler girl sharing blueberries with pretty young mom images by Tang Ming Tung/ Getty Images

Just say “no” to sharing

If you find your kid sucks at sharing, then replace it with this daycare tactic: turn taking. You can even teach your kid to ask for that turn themselves. For a baby or toddler, that might be putting their hands out and saying “Please?” or “My turn?” Preschoolers might ask, “Can I play with that truck next?” More often than not, the other kid will agree to passing the toy along when they are done with it.

Little boy playing with blocks lisegagne/ Getty Images


Don’t force an apology

We’ve all been there. Your kid sprays water in the face of a sweet little toddler at the splash pad. Mortified, you demand your kid apologize. But because it’s simply a learned response, saying sorry is actually pretty meaningless to little kids, says Clusiault, so it won’t prevent the behaviour from happening again. “Children learn that after they say it, they can carry on and everything is fine,” she says. Instead, Clusiault facilitates a conversation between the kids involved that includes asking if the other kid is OK, how it made them feel and what the instigator can do to help make things better. Sometimes all it takes is a hug, she says, but an important step toward empathy means holding kids accountable.

Little boy hugging consoling upset girl sitting on sofa, fizkes/ Getty Images

Potty training: Don’t force it

Freeman says visits to the toilet are part of the daily routine at daycare, starting as early as kids begin to show interest. “But if a child is not willing to sit on a toilet, the worst thing you can do is to make them sit,” she says. In her years of experience, she’s found that kids will use the toilet only when they’re ready, and negative associations will delay the process.

Dad teaching his son how to use potty Arsenii Palivoda/ Getty Images

Let them bring their toys

Little ones are often so transfixed with what they’re doing, they don’t want to interrupt that activity to go to the bathroom. Developmentally, they may believe the toy or activity will no longer be there when they get back, so they’ll wait until it’s accident city. VanGerwen gets around this by allowing her extra-persistent daycare kids to bring their toy or activity with them. “We never bring toys into the washroom,” she says, “but we have a space close to the washroom so that they’re not quite out of sight, out of mind. We’ll tell the kid, ‘Your toy is here,’ and when we’re finished, I’ll say, ‘Oh, look, your toy is still here’ to build that trust. Pretty quickly they realize it’s not such a terrible thing to go pee.”

Shot of a small cute girl sitting on the potty with assistance of her mother. VioletaStoimenova/ Getty Images


Don’t go back and forth

Once you’ve committed to underwear, don’t go back and forth, says Nicole Cedeno, director of the Glenora Child Care Society in Edmonton. Kids get confused, and some will regress and stop using the toilet altogether when they realize they can just do the deed in their pull-on diaper. At daycare, once a kid is in underwear, they stay in underwear. Accidents are going to happen, but that feeling of being wet is an essential part of the learning process, she says. For parents who are sick of the mess, Cedeno recommends early training underwear with thicker padding. “They still feel wet when they have an accident, but it’s not such a huge mess.”

Rear view of a cute little boy riding his toy tricycle around his kitchen at home NickyLloyd/ Getty Images

Play: Set activity traps

Wish your kid would play with their toys while you get things done? At daycare, kids can regularly be seen playing on their own—and that’s often because teachers have left out enticing activities for kids to discover. Try strategically putting out toys for your kid to stumble upon. Line up stuffies on a couch, leave a colouring book and markers on the table or place a stack of books near a cushion on the floor.

Adorable cute beautiful little baby girl playing with educational wooden music toy at home. romrodinka/ Getty Images

Break things down into steps

Walk into any child-care centre, and you’ll see charts for washing your hands, for tying your shoes or explaining the order of getting dressed. Learning to follow simple steps is crucial to fostering more independence in young kids. Help your kid with a variety of tasks—from teeth brushing to putting on outdoor gear—with your own picture charts. Laminate the images and keep them on a key ring for portability. You could even just keep a folder of pictures on your phone.

kid putting shoes on dmphoto/ Getty Images


Be consistent and commit

From talking to parents, VanGerwen has found they sometimes give up on a strategy when it doesn’t work quickly. But when daycare teachers start with a new group of kids, they expect that things take quite a bit of time. “I only begin to see results after around three months, and that’s only if I’m consistent,” she says. She gives any new strategy a minimum of three months before determining it doesn’t work. Learned behaviours take time.

Happy mother and daughter dancing in kitchen at home Maskot/ Getty Images
This article was originally published on Jan 20, 2020

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