Is Your Toddler Picking Up Bad Habits At Day Care?

By Jen Taylor | Children 0-5

Mar 19

Day care is a necessary evil for most parents.  Truthfully, it can also be a lifesaver.  If you trust your day care provider, having another set of people that can love your child is truly a blessing.  But, occasionally, you might notice that your toddler is picking up some bad habits from other children in their preschool class.   And, even worse, your child might be the one with the bad habits that other parents are complaining about. What can you do?

Day Care Bad Habit #1: Biting

Everyone will deal with biting to some degree during the course of toddler years.  As toddlers are learning to manage frustration and anger, this is just one of those things that comes up frequently. Have a biting problem in your day care?

If your child is the one being bitten:

  1. Talk to your child about the issue in child friendly language.  Explain that biting is not OK and that you are sad that happened to your child.
  2. Give your child words to say when another child is angry.  Practice saying, “I don’t like that” or “Back up” or “I am not going to play with you if you keep biting me.”
  3. Give your child a specific teacher to talk to when this happens. Teach them to always report it and not to handle it alone.
  4. Help your child learn good social skills.  Many biting incidents happen because two children want the same toy.  Role play with your child, “You can have this when I am finished” and “Can I have that when you are done?”  This is NOT a good opportunity to practice forced sharing.  If you require your child to hand over a toy to another child when they are not ready, they will do it when you are there, but they will not have the skills to negotiate when you are not.

If your child is the biter:

  1. Again, work on good social skills that include asking for toys and waiting.  Forced sharing will not solve this problem.
  2. Focus on the feeling that the child has during a frustrating incident. “You really want that toy and she is not ready to share it. You are getting frustrated.”
  3. Have your child practice asking for what they want using words. Rehearse and memorize a specific phrase to use with other children.  “Can I have that please?”
  4. A biting stick or other chewable jewelry works well here.  This is something that a child CAN bite until they have worked out another solution.  They have cool ones that your child can wear around her neck and use whenever the urge to bite strikes.
  5. Practice “nice touches.”  After a bite occurs, rather than just prompting “I’m sorry” or sending the child to time-out, have the child practice a nice touch-a smooth, soft pat on the arm to reinforce the alternative behavior.

Day Care Bad Habit #2:  Inappropriate Language

It could be actual curse words or it might just be silly language, but toddlers are natural born copycats, so anything they hear is fair game for them to repeat.  Some of it is just plain inappropriate (curse words or sexual language) that may indicate that the offending child has a poor home environment.  Other times it might be a personal preference (we don’t say ‘hate’ or ‘shut up’) but they are not necessarily off limits for every family.  Finally, it might be silly words like your child is suddenly calling everyone “chicken nugget.”

If your child is the one hearing bad language:

  1. You can address that the child heard those words from someone else and that other people are allowed to use those words.
  2. Simply reinforce each time, “We don’t use those words in our family.”
  3. Target the alternative, “You can say this word instead.”
  4. Whenever the bad word comes up,  do not respond with giggles or with an angry face…just prompt the alternative word.

If your child is the one using bad language:

  1. Any use of sexually inappropriate language requires further investigation.  Has this child been exposed to television shows, movies, music, or people that are inappropriate?  There is a risk here that a child has been victimized in some way.  If this is your child..check it out!
  2. Use a neutral voice and face (meaning don’t respond with a smile or a grimace) to let the child know that you don’t want them to use that word.
  3. Prompt the alternative word (“That word is not for you to say. You can say this word instead.” )
  4. If the child continues, you can use time-out or time-in.

Day Care Bad Habit #3: Screaming Fits

My personal pet peeve is having a child scream when they do not get their way.  Anyone else annoyed by that?  But, I understand that it is a normal part of development-all children have tantrums.  This one is tricky because some day care providers can actually be part of the problem here.  I have witnessed the screaming fit pay off for children.  So, when your child sees it pay off for a peer (as in, they got exactly what they wanted), then, they might start imitating this bad habit at home.

If your child is the one seeing others throw huge fits:

  1. Address the other child’s behavior with your child (at home privately).
  2. Talk about how your child feels about that child and their behavior. Mine will say something like, “It hurts my ears.”
  3. Explain that you feel the same way about the behavior when you see it.
  4. Reinforce your own limits: “When you throw a fit with me, it will not get you what you want.” Make sure you follow through!
  5. Praise and reward the times when your child responds without throwing a huge fit.  “I really love it when you use your words instead of screaming.”

If your child is the one throwing huge fits:

  1. Schedule a meeting with the day care to talk about the triggers and the likely consequences of the behavior in day care. Give your providers explicit permission (and sometimes instructions) to set good limits and let your child cry without giving in to what they want.
  2. Consider using a sticker chart or other visual aid to reinforce a targeted alternative behavior.  For example, every time you stop crying and ask politely, you get a sticker. This can be shaped over time into the most positive version of this behavior.  So, you start with a) sticker for stopping the fit at any point b) then sticker only for not having a fit at all c) sticker for using polite words d) sticker for doing all of this without prompting.
  3. Again, practice reflecting back the feelings, wants or wishes of a child.  This is a way to show understanding and concern without giving in.  “You really wanted to ride that bike” shows a connection to the feeling and helps a child learn to express their feelings using words.
  4. Also, be mindful of scheduling: is your child tired, hungry, wet, or overwhelmed? You might need to find ways to remove the sensory overload throughout the day by having a calm down corner or area to minimize the chance of tantrums in the first place.

Final Thoughts:

I can not stress enough the concept of “goodness of fit” between your child and your day care.  While it is not always an option to change classrooms, teachers or facilities, sometimes that is the best solution. In many instances, I have seen young children go from being a “problem child” in one facility and then do quite well in another.  This doesn’t mean that the first facility or teacher was “bad” but just that it was not a good fit. Same thing goes for therapy-your child’s therapist is only as good as the relationship she has with the child. If problems persist despite all interventions, it is likely a problem with the relationships in the child’s life.  Seek additional support from a play therapist to help you navigate those issues.

And tell me, what bad habits have your children picked up at day care?

About the Author

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

  • LK says:

    Great tips thank you. I am going through this and seriously considering hiring a nanny instead. But I’m worried some nannies are lax abut discipline too.

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