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The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months, has been happily putting cereal pieces into his mouth. He pauses for a moment and then uses his hands to scatter the food across his high chair tray. He catches his father’s eye, gives him a big smile, and drops a piece of cereal on the floor. When his father picks it up, Jayden kicks his legs, waves his arms, and laughs. He throws another piece of cereal. His dad smiles and says, “Jayden, it looks like you are all done eating. Is that right?” He picks Jayden up and says, “How about we throw a ball instead of your food, okay?”
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Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

Aug 03, 2020

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Page 1: Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

Understanding Your Child’s Behavior:

Reading YourChild’s Cues from

Birth to Age 2

Does this Sound Familiar?

Jayden, age 9 months, has been happily putting cereal

pieces into his mouth. He pauses for a moment and

then uses his hands to scatter the food across his

high chair tray. He catches his father’s eye, gives him a

big smile, and drops a piece of cereal on the floor. When

his father picks it up, Jayden kicks his legs, waves his

arms, and laughs. He throws another piece of cereal. His

dad smiles and says, “Jayden, it looks like you are all

done eating. Is that right?” He picks Jayden up and says,

“How about we throw a ball instead of your food,

okay?”

Page 2: Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

Naomi, age 30 months, is happilyplaying with her blocks. All of asudden, her mother looks at the clock,gasps, and says, “Naomi, I lost track oftime! We need to go meet your brotherat the school bus! Let’s go.” Shescoops Naomi up and rushes towardthe kitchen door. Naomi shouts, “NO!”and tries to slide out of her mother’sarms to run back to her blocks. Whenher mother puts on Naomi’s sneakers,she kicks them off, slaps her mother’shands, and repeats, “No! I STAY! Iplaying blocks!” Naomi’s mother sighswith frustration and buckles her intothe stroller with no shoes. This sets offanother round of protests: “MySHOES! Where my SHOES?” Naomipulls at her stroller’s buckle, trying tounfasten it, and kicks, screams, andcries all the way to the bus stop.

The FocusBabies and toddlers might just belearning to talk—but they have manyother ways to tell parents how they arefeeling! Children can experience thesame emotions that adults do, but theyexpress those feelings differently.Jayden is giving his father many cluesthat he is done eating. First, he beginsto play by sweeping the food across histray. Then he drops food on the floor inan attempt to get his Dad to play the “IDrop It, You Get It” game. Jayden’sfather notices and responds to these“cues,” by calling an end to mealtimeand giving Jayden a chance to play.Naomi is also very clear about herfeelings. She doesn’t like having tomake a transition from a funactivity (blocks) so quickly. Sheis giving her mother many“cues” too—her words, facialexpressions, and actions areall saying, “This transitionwas too quick for me. I

What to Expect:Communication Skills Birth to 12 MonthsDid you know that crying is really justa baby’s way of trying to tell yousomething? Your baby’s cry can meanmany different things, including, “I’mtired,” “I don’t know how to settlemyself,” “I’m in pain or discomfort,”or “I want the toy you just picked up.”In the first year, babies will graduallybegin to use gestures and sounds tocommunicate. But many parents findthe first 12 months one of the mostdifficult times to understand themeaning of their babies’ behaviors.Below are some common ways babiescommunicate. With time, you willfigure out your baby’s unique way ofcommunicating.

Sounds: Crying is your baby’s primarycommunication tool. You might findthat your baby uses different criesfor hunger, discomfort (like a wetdiaper), or pain (like a tummyache). Paying attention to thesounds of these cries helps youmake a good guess about what yourbaby is trying to communicate.

Language: Right around the one-yearmark (for some babies earlier, andfor some babies later), your babywill say his or her first word. Whileat first your child’s language skillswill seem to grow slowly, rightaround the two-year mark they willreally take off!

Facial Expressions: Themeaning of a smile is easy

to understand. But youwill also get to know

your baby’squestioning or

curious face, alongwith expressions

of frustration,

was having fun and I can’t move on soquickly.”

Children’s behavior has meaning—it’s just that adults don’t alwaysunderstand what the meaning is. In theearly years, before children havestrong language skills, it can beespecially hard to understand what ababy or toddler is trying tocommunicate. This resource will helpyou better understand your child’sbehavior cues and help you respond inways that support his or her healthysocial and communicationdevelopment.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

Page 3: Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

and smiling. While babies don’t thinkin words yet, the message this baby issending might be, “What is that thing?I want to see it. Can you give it tome? It looks like fun!”

Or imagine a baby who is happilyplaying with an older cousin. Thecousin is puffing out his cheeks andthen letting the air out, making a loudwhooshing sound. The baby islaughing, kicking, and waving hisarms. All of a sudden, though, thebaby’s response changes. He looksaway and his expression turns to oneof distress. He kicks his legs andarches his back. He starts to cry. Themessage this baby is sending mightbe, “That was fun for a while. Butnow it’s too much. I need a break.”

12 Months to 24 MonthsIn the second year, young toddlers arebecoming more skilled atcommunicating their needs anddesires to you. Here are moreexamples of how young toddlers’communication skills are growing andchanging from 12 to 24 months.

Sounds and Language: Your youngtoddler’s vocabulary is growingslowly but steadily across his or her second year of life.Pronunciation might not be perfect,like “muh” for milk, but that will

pleasure, excitement, boredom, andmore. Remember, babiesexperience the same basic emotionswe do: happiness, sadness,curiosity, anxiety, frustration,excitement, and so on.

Gaze: Look where your baby islooking and it will tell you a lotabout what he or she is thinking.An overstimulated or tired babywill often break eye contact withyou and look away. A baby whowants to play will have a brightgaze focused right on you or thetoy she is interested in!

Gestures: Babies use their bodies inmany ways to communicate. Theyreach for people and objects, pickobjects up, sweep objects awaywith their hands, wave their armsand hands and kick their feet, andpoint (just to name a few). Babieswill also turn away from soundsthey don’t like or arch backwards ifthey are upset.

Putting It TogetherBabies use their whole body tocommunicate. So, for example, a babymight focus a bright, clear gaze on anew toy, and then look to you, thenback at the toy. She might kick herlegs or swing her arms excitedly. Thebaby might then reach for the toywhile making excited “eh eh!” sounds

come with time. Your toddler alsounderstands more words than everbefore. In fact, he probablyunderstands more words than he canactually say! For example, if youask him to touch his nose, chancesare, he will be able to do so.

Even as your toddler’s languageskills are growing, cries are still themain way to communicate strongemotions like anger, frustration,sadness, or feeling overwhelmed.You might also see your toddlersqueal with laughter and scream indelighted glee when he is tooexcited for words!

Facial Expressions and Gaze:Toddlers make some of the bestexpressions ever, so keep yourcamera handy during this secondyear of life. You can see delight,curiosity, jealousy, and otherfeelings play across their faces.Young children also use eyecontact to communicate withyou. For example, youmight see your toddlergazing at you to get yourattention (Won’t youcome play with me?).You might also see yourchild watching you tolearn something new(Now how do I press thecell phone buttons?).

Page 4: Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

Your toddler also watches yourreactions to make sense of newsituations (I am not sure I wantUncle Joe to hold me. I am goingto check your face to see if youthink he is he okay or not.) Oftenyou will find that your childmirrors your own expressions andgestures—if you take a bite ofbroccoli and crinkle your nose,chances are good that your toddlerwill too.

Gestures: Young toddlers are moretalented than ever at using theirbodies to communicate. They canwalk, run, point, take your hand,show you things, carry and moveobjects, climb, open and shutthings, and more. Watching yourtoddler’s body language andgestures will give you lots ofinformation about what she isthinking about, what she wants, orwhat she is feeling.

Putting It TogetherOver time, it becomes easier tounderstand your child’s cues andmessages. Young toddlers are skilledat using their bodies, expressions, andgrowing language skills tocommunicate their needs more clearlythan ever before. A 14-month-oldmight creep over to the book basket,choose a favorite story, creep back toher uncle, and tap the book on his legwhile saying, “Buh.” A 20-month-oldmight pick up her sandals and thenwalk to the back door, turn to hergrandmother and say, “Go park.”These interactions are really anamazing developmental leap fortoddlers! They are now able to holdan idea in their minds (“I want to reada book and not just any book, thisbook”) and understand how tocommunicate that idea to the peoplewho can make it happen!

attention or wants to see how youare reacting to a new situation.

• What gestures or movements isyour child using? Is your babyrubbing her eyes and pulling onher ear when you try to hold her?She might feel sleepy and be readyfor a nap. An older toddler who ison the verge of beginning pottytraining might start to hide behinda chair or go into a closet to have abowel movement.

• Think about what’s going on whenyou see a behavior you don’tunderstand. Does this behaviorhappen at a certain time of day(like at child care drop-off orbedtime)? Does this behavior tendto happen in a certain place (likethe brightly lit, noisy mall)? Doesthe behavior happen in a particularsituation (like when your childmust cope with many otherchildren at one time, like at theplayground)?

Three Steps toUnderstanding YourBaby’s or Toddler’sBehavior When you see a behavior you don’tunderstand, think about these “clues”to try to figure out what the behaviormeans for your child. Remember,every child is different. The samebehavior (for example, a baby who isarching her back while being held)can mean that one baby is tired andthat another baby wants to be putdown so she can stretch out and play.Getting to know your child’s uniquecues is an important way that youcan show your child that you loveand understand him or her.

Step 1: Observe and interpret yourchild’s behavior: • Notice the sounds (or words) your

baby or toddler is using. Doesyour child sound happy, sad,frustrated, bored, or hungry?When have your heard thiscry or sound before?

• What is your child’sfacial expression?What feelings areyou seeing on yourchild’s face? Is yourbaby looking at anew object withinterest? Perhaps heis trying to say,“Hand that to me soI can touch it.”

• Notice your child’sgaze. Is your babyholding eye contact withyou or has she lookedaway? (That is usually a signthat a baby needs a break.) Isyour toddler holding your gaze?Perhaps she is trying to get your

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

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Page 5: Understanding Your Child’s Behavior: Reading Your Child’s Cues … · 2020-07-30 · Reading Your Child’s Cues from Birth to Age 2 Does this Sound Familiar? J ayden, age 9 months,

validate hisfeelings. If yourfour-month-oldis crying but

refuses a bottle,try changing her

position—pickingher up and rocking

her, or putting her downto play.

Step 4: Remember thattantrums are a communication, too. Atantrum usually means that your childis not able to calm himself down.Tantrums are no fun for anyone. Theyfeel overwhelming and even scary foryoung children. For adults, it is easy toget upset when you see upsettingbehavior. But what frequently happensis that when you get really upset, yourchild’s tantrum gets even bigger.Although it can be difficult, when youare able to stay calm during theseintense moments, it often helps yourchild calm down, too.

Another strategy to try when you childis “losing it” is to re-state how yourchild seems to be feeling, whilereflecting her strong emotions. Youmight say in a very excited voice,“You are telling me that you justcannot wait for the birthday party! It isjust tooooo hard for you to wait! Youwant to go the party right now!” Forsome children, having you “mirror”their intense feelings lets them knowthat you understand them and takethem seriously, which helps them calmdown. Experiment to see whichresponse works best to calm yourchild.

Remember: You can’t alwaysunderstand what your child is trying to communicate. Even in adult

Step 2: Respond to your baby ortoddler based on what you think themeaning of his or her behavior is. It’sokay if you are not sure if your guessis right. Just try something.Remember, you can always try again.For example, if your 11-month-old ispointing toward the window, lift himup so he can see outside. Eventhough you might discover he wasreally pointing to a spider on thewall, the very fact that you tried tounderstand and respond lets himknow that his communications areimportant to you. This motivates himto keep trying to connect with you.When you respond to your child, sayout loud what you think his behaviormight mean. For example, you mightsay to the toddler you pick up, “Areyou saying that you want up? I canpick you up.” By using language todescribe what the child iscommunicating, you will be teachingyour child the meaning of words.

Step 3: If your first try didn’t work,try again. Trying different techniquesincreases the chances that you willfigure out the meaning of your child’sbehavior, understand his needs, and

relationships, we sometimes findourselves wondering about themeaning of another person’sbehavior. But these moments—whenyour child is distressed and you can’tfigure out why—can be very stressfulfor parents. If you feel as though youreally cannot handle your baby ortoddler in the moment, it’s okay toput him or her somewhere safe (like acrib) and take a few minutes foryourself. Taking care of you isimportant. You will make betterparenting choices and be able to meetyour child’s needs more effectively ifyou are feeling calm and together.

Wrapping UpBabies and toddlers experience andexpress thoughts and feelings. Oftenthey communicate their strongfeelings through behaviors that adultsunderstand right away—like a baby’sbig toothless grin when she sees hergrandma coming. Other times, veryyoung children’s behavior can beconfusing or even frustrating to theadults who care for them. Being ableto stay calm, make a good guess atwhat the behavior might mean, andthen respond helps childrenunderstand that they are powerfulcommunicators. Over the long-term,this helps children learn how toconnect with others in ways that arehealthy and respectful—a skill they’lluse for life.

Child Care Bureau

Office ofHead Start

The Center on the Social and EmotionalFoundations for Early Learning