Understand your child's stage and smile forever

Written by Ana Maria Fernandez on 25 February 2009.

As parents, we are always in search of reassurance to know that the steps we are taking to guide our little ones are correct and leading them through the right path. Unfortunately, no child comes with their instruction manuals in hand and we, very often, find our selves not knowing what to do or expect. So, for this month's article, I thought of writing about major characteristics of each developmental stage in early childhood, and some tips for you, parents, which will make your parental experience more enjoyable and clear.

It is important to keep in mind that the way you relate with your children, sets the foundation for their healthy development. Their experiences and the way you respond to them are permanently shaping who they are and the way they adapt to the world. Your child's development depends on nature but also on nurture. Also, consider that all developmental areas (social/emotional/intellectual/language/motor) depend on each other and are connected. Development is not a race. Tune into your child's individual path and enjoy the process, Yes, it is a process. Just when you feel you have mastered your child's behaviors, he/she enters a new stage with new challenges and you find your self once again lost. So knowing what to expect will reassure you that you and your child are on the right track.

Remember, each child is unique; they all need to be offered a hands-on minds-on environment where they can be protagonist in the discovery of the world around them.

During the early toddlers, between 8 to 20 months, your child is using his/her whole body to explore the world and learn. He/she is learning all kind of words every day and explores language trying out new ones. He/she is beginning to understand how his/her actions affect others but their world is still egocentric and socialization is based on wanting to have peers near but play alone. He/she loves repetition as it helps him/her discover patterns and become a better problem solver. His/her natural thinking routine is based on actions. First see something, then sense it with almost all his/her body, then he/she explores it through play and then discover patterns that later will want to repeat to start again the exploration and restore confidence in the learning. At this stage, your child needs to know he/she can explore and that you, or the care giver will always be there to help, support, praise and nurture him/her. In that, way your child builds up his/her self confidence.

As parents, be sure to permanently model the use of language. Describe what is going on, put actions and feelings into words, ask questions and allow time for response to come, articulate the right word paraphrasing what your child is saying. Provide chances for outdoor exploration and allow your child to use all five senses and body. Read books describing the images and play with them to find characters. Let your child try to dress up and feed his/her self; if time is an issue, let child have a spoon and use another to help him/her out. Sing. Show appreciation for his/her compassion and emotional expressions. Re-direct behaviors if needed verbalizing the change. Be consistent, set clear and simple routines and follow them remembering that some flexibility is also prudent. (See last months article about routines).

The next stage, some times wrongly called "Terrible Two's" is a fascinating stage in your child's life. It goes approximately from 20 to 36 months. It is a time for crucial brain development. The brain is rapidly changing from action based to the discovery of simple representations. Your child needs exposure to a vast variety of context, topics & resources to be able to make connections and build up his/her own pathways & thinking networks. It is also the beginning of social motivation to learn, he/she wants to please mommy, daddy and her teacher. It is a stage also called the adolescence of early childhood. It is a time where your child is learning how to deal with emotions as they are setting their grounds and your child is experimenting emotions he/she never felt before. These emotions can go from one extreme to another in seconds. Verbal language is also emerging and your child is relaying on it more often. Is a stage where your child discovers that he/she can have control over various situations, and explores to what extend is that true. He/she can be bossy not because he/she is sure but uncertain. Print gains meaning. Socialization starts, there is a need to feel useful. Language, motor skills, self control, social and cognitive skills are all involved in one of the major's milestones of this age, becoming potty trained. This age is also called the "no" stage; your child says no to almost every thing, and you can also find your self permanently correcting and using "no" sentences. It is indeed, a fascinating stage.

If your child is at this phase, do not panic your child's life and yours can run smoothly if you pursue the following recommendations: set clear limits so your child knows what to expect. Be persistent reinforcing the boundaries. Just imagine if I tell you there is a hole in the ground with out pointing to the specific area, you will walk insecure and with fear, maybe you would even be upset because you do not know where the hole is. Now imagine I tell you there is a hole in the right corner of the room, you will walk confidently and with gratitude for knowing the limits in advance. Limits work in the same way with your child. Your child requires sameness, persistence and clear limits. Be calm but firm, know that you might be using "no" very often now, but as soon as your child understands the limits you will see how positive behaviors become permanent. Re-direct your child's attention when possible to move child away fro unwanted behaviors. Let your child knows it is perfectly correct to feel the emotions, you need to validate them and put them into words. However, remember, having the right to feel angry does not mean you can be aggressive. Your child needs to know this and learn how to deal with emotions. Doing pretend play is very good to model actions. Have clear routines. Keep modeling language giving special attention to naming his/her actions and feelings. Allow for some basic decision making, like choosing between two pairs of pants.

Once you have set your limits and routines clearly, We can now move to the next stage of your child's life, 3 to 4 years old. At this stage, your child knows how to communicate his/her thoughts and understand 75% of what is being told. Your child is a natural inquirer and with good exposure and modeling of higher level questions and thinking language, your child can start using simple thinking language spontaneously, like referring to connections with previous experiences, doing some basic synthesis, looking for evidence when talking and considering other's view points. At this stage, your child understands the meaning of symbols, skill needed later on to discover the alphabetical way of codifying meaning. He/she understand number concept and is ready to discover knowledge that is more demanding. At this stage children already understand what behaviors are expected from them and differentiate between right and wrong being able to see it in their actions and also in others.

Finally, if your child is 4 to 5 years old, this is the time to establish the passion for learning. Every thing is a big question for him/her and there is the willingness to look for information and solve the inquiries. This is a stage to discover there is a common way of codifying meaning: the alphabetical one, and is permanently playing with writing and reading. Your child is eager to understand the world, sees patterns in nature and wants to know more. Exposure to a vast variety of experiences is essential. This is a stage where your child can show moral autonomy when deciding how to act and how his/her actions may affect others. This is a stage where values are clear and the behaviors are not guided any more because "my mother said so" but because there is an inner motivation and conscience.

As parents of children 3 to 5, be sure to keep your limits and routines consistent. Talk with your child about what happen during the day. Allow enough time for answers and ask about his/her feelings and thoughts more than for a recollection of the events. Encourage your child to look for evidence by asking, "How do you know? And "what makes you say that? Let your child describe the events. Ask, "What do you think..." instead of you giving all the answers. Encourage your child to be inquisitive and analytical by modeling. Let your child participate in regular routines being independent if possible. Share responsibilities at home, your child will love it and it is a good habit. Tell your child about your day and your feeling, soon you will find the child telling you about his/hers. Encourage social events and interaction. At this stage, learning is highly influenced by groups and skills like collaboration group working and team creativity are developed only through interaction with others.

Remember, each child is unique; they all need to be offered a hands-on minds-on environment where they can be protagonist in the discovery of the world around them. Of course, general characteristics of early childhood developmental stages extend far beyond the ones mentioned above. However, I hope these will be of help. Enjoy your parenthood, if not now when?