Using Behavior Charts with Toddlers to Help Tantrums


Using behavior charts with toddlers can help tremendously reinforce behaviors that you want to see and decrease the negative behaviors that you don’t want your child to exhibit.


When my daughter turned 2.5 I started to see that ‘threenager’ begin to creep in. I knew it was coming (if you speak to any mom, they’ll probably tell you that “3s are worse than 2s”) so I wasn’t surprised when she became less easy to reason with, increasingly independent, and more grown up.


What I was surprised about was my personal impatience with her.


Around this time my son was born (he is currently 17 months old) and I began to be stretched too thin between my kids. It has harder for me to have 1:1 time with her, which I knew was also a cause of many behavior issues and we started to have more and more power struggles.




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Tantrums in Toddlers


Between 2.5 and 4, our children will start to have more and more tantrums. These tantrums are different from the ones that I see my 17 month old having, though the root cause is similar.


Both tantrums come because of frustration. While my little guy is frustrated because he is struggling to talk and communicate his needs, my daughter is frustrated because (even though she talks plenty) she isn’t sure of her feelings and emotions.


One time while she was crying over getting the wrong colored cup at lunch, I asked her to why she was crying and told her to stop, she simply looked at me and said, “I don’t know why I’m crying”.


That’s when something clicked in me. I realized that for us to thrive during these late toddler years, we’d have to work on helping her communicate through her feelings, me being more patient with her as we navigated this road, and helping her see which behaviors would improve the situation compared to which ones would make it tougher.


At 3 years old, our toddlers are having power struggles and tantrums because, as they strive to be more and more independent, they aren’t sure how to communicate their needs and their emotions swing from a crazy pendulum all day long. As frustrated as we are with them, they are doubly frustrated with not being able to figure out this world they are in.





Helping Toddlers Communicate


One of the new strategies we’ve started with my 3 year old is helping her navigate through her feelings and explain to use what she needs without tears or frustration.


Many times all she needs is to stop in the moment to give herself time to take a breath and think about her needs at the moment.


When you’re not in the middle of a 3 year old crying session, talk to your toddler about the best ways to get what they need from mommy and daddy.


Our conversation looked like this;


“Arianna, I would love to help you get what you need but, it’s hard for me to understand you when you’re crying, screaming or not using kind words. When this happens, mommy is going to ask you to STOP, take a breathe and ask you to talk calmly about what you really need.”


The first few weeks we tried this approach, I would have to walk her through it every single time she began screaming about wanting a different snack, not being able to watch her show, or whatever reason she was upset at the moment.


I would literally say that statement over and over and repeat STOP until she was able to take a breath with me and we’d walk through her thinking about her needs. She didn't always get what she wanted if it wasn’t an available choice (which led to more tantrums) but it was a good way for us to start communicating.


Now that we’ve done this approach for a few months, whenever she starts to cry or whine or tantrum, I can simply say “STOP” in a firm yet loving voice (this is NOT the time to yell. Kids will mimic our tone and the temperature we put out in the room so if we yell, they’ll just yell back… believe me we’ve been there too!) and she can go through the processes on her own.


Using Behavior Charts with Toddlers


As a former special education teacher, I have a bunch of behavior modification tools in my toolbox.


I seem to have forgotten all of them as a parent.


I don’t know what it is but, I struggle to have those skills always translate from the classroom to my home. I taught students with behavioral disabilities so I understand the science behind positive behavior support and reinforcing behaviors that you want to see. But, with my child, I was starting to resort to time out immediately.


After almost 6 weeks of struggling with my daughter getting out of her bed at night, not staying in her room during quiet hour, speaking unkindly to us and hitting or pushing her little brother, I had to stop and reassess what I could do as a parent to help the situation.


I started with prayer (which I always will suggest! Go to the Lord with your needs for He loves them more than we do!) and will continue to pray for my spirited child daily.


I also made her a positive behavior chart to reward the behaviors we wanted to see. It’s not enough to just punish and tell them what we don’t want to see (“stop doing that” seems to be a phrase I was saying WAY too often) but we have to couple it with what we want them to be doing.


Many times people act out because they are seeking attention and when our kids see that they can get attention from doing the wrong thing, they’ll continue doing it because they don’t care what kind of attention they get. If your child has ever looked right at out as you asked them not to dump the play-doh on the floor and then dumps it (what, just mine?) then you know what I’m talking about.


I suggest picking 1-3 behaviors you want them to exhibit and start to reinforce them. A LOT.


We created a simple chart for her that she LOVED (and drop your email below to get your own copy). We have a conversation about what mommy and daddy wanted to see for her to earn her circle (for us it was staying in her bed at night, being kind to her brother and talking nicely) and every time she did it she would get to color in a circle. With each line she colored in, she’d get to pick a prize at the dollar tree (you could also pre-pick them and have them at home but there is something about letting them choose that helps) and if she filled her whole chart, we’d go on an “Ari and Mommy date” to the Chick-Fil-A.

Reinforcing Behaviors with Toddlers


It’s super important in the beginning that you reinforce and let them color in their chart A LOT. Like WAYYYYY more than you think necessary. She was completing at least one row once a day in the beginning because I was working to catch her do those things as much as I could.


We’ve only been doing this 3 weeks and I’ve seen a great difference in her behavior. She’s been staying in her bed, intentionally kinder to her brother and us, and when she doesn’t do the right thing, she can clearly state what she did amidst less tears.


Don’t worry about this chart being a crutch for them or creating a habit where they only do things to get a prize. They are TODDLERS. This is the time when we teach the behaviors we want to see. Remember, our job is to create adult citizens in this world, and parenting is shaping those small people.


As time goes by, you can reward the behaviors less and less (instead of every time, maybe every other time or every few times) and they’ll begin to do it just because it’s the way they have been taught to act.


This won’t happen overnight, tantrums and bad behavior will happen, and life moves on. Just remember that parenting isn’t just about yelling, time out and telling them what they shouldn’t do (though honestly that can sometimes be my go to) but helping them learn how to behave and react to situations in the correct way.


Along the way, make sure you’re modeling for them how to react (if they see you yell when you don’t get your way, they’ll do the same), reinforcing what you want to see, and having conversations with them when they are calm about what happened.


Parenting is a hard and crazy juggling act and it’s never going to be perfect. Do your best to be intentional and your kids will respond.


Oh, and in case you needed to hear it today… you’re an amazing mom. You are doing your best, you love your kids, and you rock!




PIN this post to come back to later and go and download the chart to use with your kids! I’d love to hear how it goes, so drop a comment!


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Prepare Your Child for Preschool

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