The “Little People” in Your Home

By Inge Cannon,

Tips for Working with Preschoolers

It is important to understand how children develop because you have a particular window of opportunity related to that development, and you need to gear your training to that opportunity.

Understanding your children’s development also helps you not exasperate or anger them by expecting too much of them. Remember that developmental changes are a gradual process. All children are different, and the Creator has a specific design for each child. Don’t compare your children–to each other or to other people. And don’t let your children confuse your approval with love, as love is not connected with their behavior.

Every age group needs to know they are loved, accepted, and believed in. They need to have friends, hope for the future, and people to confide in. All must learn to love others, be unselfish, act in a cheerful manner in spite of feelings, serve others, and understand the gospel.


Ages two to three
Toddlers are little, and furniture and equipment needs to be suited to their size. It’s hard to sit still for long if your feet don’t touch the floor. Sample carpet squares can make perfect-sized boundaries for toddlers during specific times when limiting their world is helpful for you to get a job done.

Their large muscles are developing. Nothing is fine-tuned, so larger crayons and tools are good as long as they are not too big. Remember that large muscles can only do simple handiwork.

Their vocal muscles are not developed. Teach simple songs in a good range–the B flat below middle C to the octave above middle C.

Children’s attention spans are generally one minute for every year they are old. Our goal is to stretch that to double and triple that length. Use lots of variety and change activities often.

Toddlers are susceptible to disease because their immune systems are not developed until closer to age three. So guard their health and teach good hygiene habits, such as washing hands often and keeping their hands away from their faces.

They have limited vocabulary, so choose simple stories with pictures to help them understand. Don’t mimic their baby talk. They are counting on us to introduce them to the real world. Saying words correctly helps later with spelling.

They think literally and believe everything they hear. To them, fairy tales are just as real as true stories. It’s okay to cultivate their imagination, but even when they’re young you need to lay truthful foundations. Identify what is make-believe even before they understand the difference so they will know they can count on you.

They have no sense of time, so outline your plans in terms of events rather than minutes.

They learn through their senses. Help them identify these senses with vocabulary.

They learn by asking questions. Simple, true answers build vocabulary. Taking time to answer their many questions indicates your children’s importance to you.

Their memory is unreliable. Give instructions one at a time. They often can’t remember instructions from previous times, so repeat as needed. By three years, they should be able verbalize back.

Toddlers are socially dependent and self-centered; they want to dominate their world. They need to become aware of other children, and to be commended for choosing correct behavior. Dr. James Dobson advises parents to praise many more times than they correct.

They have sensitive nervous systems. Avoid confusion and loudness. Lowering your voice and slowing the pace of your speech will be very helpful.

Toddlers tend to be afraid of the unfamiliar. Don’t let siblings tell them scary stories or let them see scary things. Be careful of videos, including cartoons!

They need security. Don’t leave without telling them, even if they get clingy. Give them an event marker as to when you’ll be back.

Read Scripture and Bible stories even if they don’t understand, because the words will still take root.

Don’t ask questions that invite the answer “no.” (Are you ready to clean up your toys?) Tell them what you or they are going to do. Don’t let tantrums accomplish their purpose, but also avoid triggers. The future will be much easier if you establish your right to control their lives between birth and age six!


Ages four and five
They grow fast, so make adjustments in equipment and toys.

Their muscles are being fine-tuned, so they are gaining control in their handwriting and coloring in large, defined shapes.

They have lots of energy. Teach them how to gallop, hop, skip, jump, run, and practice coordination. But they also tire easily. If children rise early, they need a nap time. Mom also needs her nap time! A solution to burnout for mom is a quiet time every day during which children must stay on their beds with a book or quiet activity. You’ll find they often fall asleep.

Their hearing and vision are developing. Speak clearly, and keep music and other sounds soft. Protect their eyesight by not allowing them to sit close to the TV and by providing enough light.

They are stronger but still susceptible to disease.

They should be taught to clean up after themselves to leave areas clean and neat for others.

Their vocabulary is growing, so stretch it by using synonyms. Have kids use as many “describing words” as they can. Teach them the alphabet, and tie words to their beginning sounds.

They still have a short attention span and forget easily. Repeat often and have them repeat back to you. Be specific with instructions. Don’t say, “Pick up your toys” but “Pick up ten toys. As you’re picking up each toy, say the number of the toy and what you’re doing with the toy” (putting it in the chest, hanging it up, taking it to the laundry, etc.).

They have a limited idea of time and space, which means their drawings won’t be in proportion. Suggest changes but don’t criticize.

Preschoolers have a good imagination and will understand when you explain differences between what is real and what is “pretend.”

They often don’t understand the questions they’re asking you. Give a minimum answer to check if that’s enough or if they want more information.

They are literal in understanding, so don’t use symbolism. Even cute children’s Bible songs often are symbolic and don’t make sense at this age–wait until the school-age years. Put simple Bible words to tunes.

They mimic what they see.

They are still self-centered but can understand sharing. Don’t demand that they share, lest you cancel training in one character quality while working to develop another quality (in this case, the principle of ownership and responsibility). Ask them if they can choose certain toys that they are willing to share with guests.

The power of suggestion is strong; use it to your advantage to suggest doing the right thing. Highlight what they are doing right. Since they want to conform, they can please the wrong people in group settings. Don’t send them off to another room when company comes–watch and listen to see what is going on.

Discipline them right away and then drop the matter. Differentiate between
telling and training. Don’t say, “I’ve told you before.” Training explains and models the behavior you want. Remember that you will get what you inspect and not what you expect. These are the steps to training: explain what you want done and how to do it, do it with them, watch them do it, and inspect that they have done it.

They have intense emotions that easily flip-flop. Fear is a huge emotion. Don’t tell them horror stores, and be careful about violence on any kind of video. They can control crying, so insist they ask instead of fuss about things. Give warnings about events that are going to happen so they can prepare emotionally for the change.

They associate God with everything that’s good and don’t understand when bad things happen. Those times are opportunities to teach about prayer and that God also says “no.” Maintain “devotional living”–highlighting God and His involvement in every aspect of life.

Adapted from Inge Cannon’s HEAV Convention workshop, June, 2009–“Growing in Wisdom & Stature: Toddlers & Preschoolers.” Separate 75-minute workshops about Toddlers and Preschoolers are available as MP3 downloads at Look for the series entitled Growing in Wisdom & Stature: How to Make the Most of Every Stage in Your Child’s Development.