Supporting Emotional Intelligence in Two-Year Olds

I have just completed a 14 week experience teaching two-year-olds in a Montessori-style classroom and interacting with their young parents.  “The terrible twos, how could you?” said my friends.  Today, I am very grateful for this concentrated glimpse into the world of these fourteen very individualistic two-year olds (and I didn’t find any of them “terrible”).

This age bracket is the beginning one for the development of emotional intelligence.  Many children are struggling with their emotions in a public setting (day care) for the first time and learning how to get through it all.   Already, I could see the previous social conditioning of their parents playing out in their personalities and orientations to other children.   I observed these children navigating for the first time with how to play in meaningful ways with others– copycatting was high on the list of observable play behaviors. If one child initiated a behavior, others would follow suit—usually these were with undesirable behaviors.  Some were transitioning from diapers to the toilet—those that had made it were in a different “older kid club”.  There was pride in this membership.  They were all learning how to be independent with opening lunch boxes, throwing away their left overs, cleaning their work areas, taking work off the shelves and returning it to the same location. Some days, all the children worked so diligently on their lessons with enthusiasm and joy.  Other days, they were more apt to throw themselves down on the rug, roll around and “space out”.   Sometimes they just got in trouble.  The head teacher called this “making a bad choice”.  This seemed to work.  I could see them categorizing these infractions in their consequent actions.  They certainly knew when another child made a “bad choice” and were happy to share that information. When they didn’t make good choices, they had to be carefully explained to as to why their choice wasn’t the best one.  Negotiations were often difficult.  There was occasional biting when “no” didn’t seem to cut through, there was hitting by those who didn’t go as far as biting, and there was a lot of touching, and not much hugging.  Crying was the easiest way to express their frustrations and disappointments.  I found all of these behaviors mark the beginning emotional life for the two-year old who is attending day care.

If your child is in day care and this age, you may be interested in exploring with your teacher the ways your child is developing emotional intelligence.

Parents are advised by experts to:

Become aware of the child’s emotion.
Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings.
Help the child verbally label emotions.
Set limits while helping the child problem-solve.

I was able to sharpen my teaching, listening and caring skills through this “in the trenches experience” and I have a new found appreciation for the amazing minds of two-year olds– their capacity for order and cleanliness, their curiosity about the world, their attention to detail, and most especially the emerging independent spirit that comes from wearing underwear and being able to do things for oneself.  Pay attention.  There is a genius stirring in your two-year-olds mind– even if you can’t quite see it yet.

Dr. Celeste A. Miller

Photographed by Tom Miller

Kwan Yin – Ceramic – Taipei