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Herding Kittens – How Should Settings Handle 2-Year-Olds?

Two-year-olds are not prone to staying in one place, or focusing on a single activity for long – so how can we best meet their needs? Sue Cowley offers her advice...

  • Herding Kittens – How Should Settings Handle 2-Year-Olds?

Even though two-year-olds and four-year-olds may be in the same setting space, there can be significant developmental differences between the two age groups. The youngest children will have less verbal understanding, and will typically find it harder to focus on one activity for an extended period of time.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to have high ratios of adults to children when working with younger age groups – smaller children typically need more adult support and attention.

The scenario

Your setting has recently started taking in more and younger two-year-olds and this has brought up a number of issues around the way you organise your provision. The behaviour of the youngest children, especially the new starters, means that they need more time and focus from staff.

You operate a ‘free-flow’ system between indoors and outdoors, but find that your new two-year-olds move so quickly between inside and outside that it is hard to keep up with them. They flit from here to there, rarely settling to one activity for any length of time. The new starters often seem unsettled and some of them are struggling to understand your routines.

It sometimes feels, as the saying goes, as though you are ‘herding kittens’...

The issue

When settings start to take in younger children, it is very important to take into account their differing needs – particularly around language development, self-care and the kind of resources you set out.

This may be to do with changing staffing levels, creating quiet areas for ‘downtime’, or perhaps around the kind of resources and activities you offer. Balancing the needs of two-year-olds and four-year-olds in the same space can be tricky, but the ‘family feel’ of mixed-age settings has many benefits as well.

Dealing with the behaviour

To support your younger children, it is really useful to:

1. Do an audit of the toys and resources you offer, and consider how suitable they are for different age groups. Ensure that there is something that will engage everyone, and check that resources are safe in terms of choke hazards.

2. Consider your staffing levels, particularly on days where you have new starters in the setting, or when there are a lot of younger children in session. It is often the case that the statutory ratios will not be sufficient in these situations.

3. Look at ways to encourage the younger children to focus on a particular activity – for instance, by considering their interests, or the schemas that they like to use when they play.

4. If you use a whole group carpet time, consider how long it is appropriate for the youngest children to sit still and listen. Make provision for those who would rather be up and about for all or most of the time.

Finding solutions

To help you resolve the issue and support your two-year-olds, you could try the following strategies:

• Use home visits to find out more about the children and get a better understanding of their levels of language acquisition and self-care needs.

• Encourage parents to stay with and support their young children while they settle – for as long as they wish, if possible.

• Allow the children to bring in toys and other items from home, to make your setting feel more comforting and secure for them.

• Consider how best to arrange staffing for free-flow. Would it work best for one adult to stay with the child when he or she moves inside/outside, or for the adults to stay in one place and take turns in caring for the child?

• Ensure that you set out resources that will be attractive to the youngest age range, as well as ones that will stretch the older children.

• Create a soft, comfy and semi-private space, where the children can sit quietly and look at books or rest when they need to. A lot of behaviour issues at this age are to do with children getting overtired.

• Use lots of non-verbal symbols around your setting, to help the smallest children understand what is going on, particularly with routines. Makaton is a great way to enhance communication and support understanding.

• Accept that it will take more time to help the smallest children get dressed and attend to their toileting needs. Allow yourself plenty of time for these activities.

Sue Cowley is a teacher, author and presenter. Her latest book, The Artful Educator, is due to be published by Crown House in early 2017

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