Help! Why does my toddler run in class?

I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt! My child was ‘the runner’ in his toddler music class. There’s usually always one and then, very quickly, there are two or three running around in circles!

So why do they do it?

Firstly, let us try and understand the life of a 2 year old. Commonly referred to as the ‘terrible twos’, the developmental changes that occur between 18 months and 3 years are amazing – and sometimes overwhelming. Many of the challenges this age group present are due to their new awareness of ‘the self’. ‘Me, myself and I’ perfectly sums up the life of a toddler as they realise that they are a separate being from you and start to assert their independence and become so self-absorbed! Children of this age have constant conflict between the desire to be close to their caregivers whilst also wanting to assert their emerging independence – research shows that mild-to-moderate conflicts occur for the two- and three-year-old once every three minutes and major conflicts occur at the rate of three per hour!

Couple this conflict with immature language skills where children cannot find the words to express themselves, a lack of understanding about the world around them (why can I throw a soft ball inside but not a plastic egg?) and a lack of emotional skills to understand how their action may have an impact on other adults or children (empathy) and we have all the ingredients for some challenging behaviour. It is our role as parents to help them develop these key skills in a loving, non-judgemental way whilst keeping our own emotions under control as they kick back!

Knowing that this kind of behaviour, at home or in class, is your child’s way of communicating something and/or asserting their independence might help you understand and gradually transform the terrible twos into the terrific twos.

In Kindermusik class, pretty much every child goes through a stage of not joining in (because I simply don’t want to), throwing an instrument (but you let me throw a ball?) or starting a running race (my friends are following me – yay!). Our job as parents and educators is to help them explore this independence and creativity within the social norms that make behaviour appropriate – these norms are important, particularly if we want to keep them and other children safe.

So back to our original question, why do they run? Firstly, because they can and secondly, because they need to! Gross motor development continues apace in the 2nd and 3rd years of life as they move from toddling to running, to jumping, to leaping to dancing! They want to practise their new skills and, like the throwing example above, they need to know when they can run and when they cannot. It can be very confusing to a toddler – sometimes we are allowed to run in class (when we’re being fast trains) but other times running is unacceptable e.g. when it is story time or instrument play. Thirdly, it is fun! Having the space to run is so inviting and, coupled with some friends imitating them and playing chase, this is toddler heaven! Knowing when and when not to run takes a huge amount of self control, not just of our physical bodies and actions but also our feelings and emotions – to control this behaviour, we need to understand why we cannot run in class and what the consequences might be (to us and others) and these skills are simply not there in many toddlers.

As early years educators, we recognise that it is not developmentally appropriate to expect toddlers to sit still for 45 minutes. We aim to provide a mixture of movement activities in our class structure yet for some children this is still not enough and moving with instruments rather than sitting, or jumping staccato rather than bouncing on a lap are all perfectly legitimate ways to interact with an activity. As a parent, the best thing you can do is to go with it! Notice what they are doing, comment on what they are doing (“Oh, you’re using your feet to bounce instead of your bottom!”) and imitate what they are doing – by far the best form of flattery for a toddler! It is important to allow every child the freedom to participate in their own way, even if it means moving in the exact opposite way modelled by the adults. You may need to go to the back of the room to play with the instruments or jump rather than stay on the mat but if you do, you will be rewarded with a smile from your child and give them a wonderful sense of what they are doing is important to you, their very special person!

If this movement is still not enough for your child, and they do not have the self-control to know when to stop, it is important that we then educate them in the when and whys so that they learn to recognise this for themselves. To help your child learn when to run and how to run safely we need to provide guidance such as:

  • No running unless the teacher is running i.e. part of an activity
  • All running must be holding hands with a parent (to prevent accidental falling over)

If your child is running outside of these rules, remember that:

  • they may not have heard you – toddlers live in the moment and are self-absorbed in what they are doing
  • they might be finding it really fun and don’t want to stop
  • they do not have the self-control and ability to stop by themselves
  • they may be asserting their independence away from you.
  • they may be trying to get your attention (a big subject for another day!)

With this in mind, here are some simple, effective things you can do encourage them to stop running and model desired behaviour:

  • go to your running child and hold firm in a hug at their level, look them in the eye (they love eye contact!) tell them ‘I know that you love to run but it is not running time now as Sarah has stopped running and we are doing X instead’
  • use the word ‘stop’ to instruct rather than ‘no’
  • give them time to process your instructions – toddlers take so much longer to process information than adults
  • take their hand and distract with the next activity – “where shall we sit for story time?” “Which shaker are you going to use?”
  • when they settle into the new activity, comment on this by saying ‘You stopped running and are now doing X’. We do not need to tell them ‘Well done’ or ‘Good job’ but simply noticing and recognising that they have changed their behaviour is enough.
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