I probably spent about 2 months unsuccessfully imploring my primary pupils to ‘Listen!’. Then it dawned on me: perhaps they didn’t know (or had forgotten) exactly what I meant when I asked them to ‘listen’. I had forgotten that it was my responsibility to ensure that they understood my instructions.

The same holds true outside the classroom. So often we simply tell children what we want them to do (Be gentle. Listen. Sit still.) without actually teaching them how to do it.

What it looks like: No matter how many times you ask baby to ‘be gentle’ with the dog, he still insists on hitting it or pulling the dog’s fur.

Mistaken for: Willful disobedience – choosing to be rough when he knows how to be gentle.

What baby is learning: When we simply tell baby what to do and don’t teach him how he isn’t able to learn a whole lot. He learns that a certain word (e.g. gentle) carries specific expectations, but if he isn’t shown what those expectations are (and he might need to be shown many more times than we think) then every situation in which this word applies is a guessing game. Such a process of trial and error will certainly take a fair bit of time before baby gets it right. It will also likely result in frustration for both adult and baby, particularly if baby is scolded when he guesses wrong.

But…when we teach baby how to meet our expectations, everyone can enjoy the learning process instead of being frustrated that the learning has not already taken place.

How to support: In most cases, teaching baby how to meet your expectations means showing him what it looks like, feels like and perhaps even sounds like as well as modeling the behaviour yourself. Let’s look at an example.

You want baby to be gentle with the dog. You have modeled gentle petting yourself and baby has seen several others pet the dog gently, but baby continues to hit the dog and pull its fur. This shows that baby hasn’t quite got it yet and needs more help. Take baby’s hand and together try petting the dog gently. If baby tries to be rough you can firmly say, ‘That’s rough, I want you to be gentle,’ and again show him what gentle feels like. Go ahead and describe what you’re doing in words but keep it simple and repetitive. Depending on baby’s stage of development, words may still be quite abstract so you’ll want to focus more on tangible aspects. If baby refuses to be gentle and insists on being rough with the dog clearly tell baby that you ‘won’t let him hit the dog’ and then follow through by holding baby’s hands or removing him or the dog from the situation.

You may have to show baby how to be gentle several times. But know that your patience and support, however difficult they may be to muster, are allowing baby to engage in deep, meaningful learning as well as showing him that you are there to support him as he enjoys the process of learning. Also be patient with yourself. If you find that you’re getting frustrated, take a break from the lesson or ask someone else to do some teaching.

Once baby seems to understand your expectations, you can begin to withdraw your support. Eventually you will be able to say ‘be gentle’ and baby will, in fact, be gentle because you have shown him what this phrase means. Obviously he will need refresher lessons whenever any aspect of the situation changes: How should I be gentle…with a different dog? on a different day? when I’m at the park? when I’m with Grandma? But having already learned the foundational concept these refreshers shouldn’t be too strenuous.

I won’t lie, this method does take a little extra time and patience in the beginning. But the result – an adult who knows how to communicate her expectations and a child who understands what is expected of him – is worth it!