Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Why Won’t My Child Listen to Me? July 21, 2011

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 7:38 pm

This is one of the most common questions I get in parent consultations. As parents, we seem to repeat ourselves a hundred times a day. Why don’t children hear us? Of course, by “hear us”, we mean “obey” our requests, right? Let’s break down this issue into two separate parts: “hearing” us and actually “complying” with our requests.

Young children tend not to respond to a parent or caregiver unless you’ve gotten their attention first. Are you shouting at them from another room? Calling to them from the kitchen? Standing behind them while they’re engrossed in play or watching TV? Yelling across the playground? Doing something else while trying to get their attention? (i.e. checking e-mail, answering the phone, getting yourself ready in the morning, putting a sibling to bed, feeding the dog.)

For most effective listening, you need a child’s full attention. That may mean getting down to their eye level, lightly touching their shoulder, being involved in their play either at home or on the playground. It may help to start with a positive comment. “You’re building a great tower there! Soon, it’s going to be dinnertime.” “Wow! You made it down the big slide! Do you want to do the slide again or the swing one more time before we leave the park?” “You got your shirt on all by yourself! I’m going to start breakfast. Come join me when you’ve chosen what pants to wear too.”

OK. Let’s talk about non-compliance for a moment. Your child is not trying to make you angry. He or she simply has an agenda that may be different from yours. It’s our job to figure out what is stopping them from complying with our request. Are they feeling rushed? It might help to remember that children have a much slower processing speed than you think. State your request, than give them time to comply. With young children, I often say, “I’m ready to pick you up now,” while holding out my arms to them. Then, I wait until they turn to me and hold out their arms as well.

When you see the world from your child’s point of view, you may begin to understand why they can’t “hear” and “obey” your every request. Young children are primarily focused on their own needs and wants. They need time to transition and prepare for change. They intuitively create their own daily agendas.

Think about the particular strategies that help you connect with your child when you’re not rushed or preoccupied. If you practice getting their full attention during play moments, you will be more adept at getting their attention during rushed transitions. Focus on strategies that work with your child’s particular temperament. Which strategies elicit the best response? Is it best if you moderate your voice, bend down for eye contact, touch your child’s shoulder, or involve yourself in their play? By connecting with your child first, you are more likely to encourage a cooperative response to your request.

Heidi Emberling, MA


Ruled by Impulses July 19, 2011

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 6:03 pm

Impulsive behaviors, actions, and emotions are an integral part of the wiring in a young child’s brain. The urge to act on impulse is overwhelming and powerful, even though a child is already learning to differentiate “right” from “wrong.”

Parents regularly come to me with the following challenging impulsive behaviors:

-My child climbs onto the coffee table (dining room table, couch, swinging chandelier), even though I’ve told them a hundred times that it’s not “safe.”

-My child constantly hits her sibling (parent, friend, sweet child at the park, preschool playmate), even though she gets “punished” for aggressive behavior.

-If something isn’t going right in my child’s world, he throws himself to the ground and has a meltdown, even if we’re out in public (especially when we’re out in public).

These, and hundreds more examples like these, are the most common causes of parental headaches in these early years (coupled with lack of sleep, screaming, excessive whining, and eating too many chicken nuggets, of course).

Children simply cannot control their impulses in these early years. The brain is wired to react instantly to any perceived threat or excitement. (I use “perceived”, because children may not respond at all to “real” dangers such as running into the street or leaping off the roof of your house.) Perceived threats would be something like another child grabbing their toy, not getting the ice cream (toy, piece of lint) they desperately want, or realizing they have to get into bed (the bath, to the dinner table) RIGHT NOW.

Knowing your child has very little control over their impulses is the reason we “child-proof” our homes in that first year. We know they can’t stop themselves from touching a hot stove, exploring the knife drawer, and finding those cleaning supplies under the sink. So what do we do? We eliminate the possibility of acting on those impulses by controlling the environment. We put safety fasteners on our drawers and cabinets, cover our stove knobs, and put cleaning supplies up high.

You can use this skill of controlling the environment for many impulsive situations. Let’s look at the original examples above:

-CLIMBING: Remove the coffee table (just for a few weeks until the excitement passes), remove the dining room chairs (harder to climb on the table with the chairs moved elsewhere!), remove access to the swinging chandelier (duh).

-HITTING: Move your child away from the object of their scorn. “Uh, oh. Sandbox isn’t working out for us today! Time to go over to the slide (swings, monkey bars, home).” If you are holding a young child who is hitting you, why are you still holding them? Put them down, turn your back or walk out of the room for a moment. Use authoritative voice (not yelling voice, but firm voice: “Hitting hurts. When you want me, say, ‘mommy, up!’ or reach up to me.”)

-TANTRUMS: Meltdowns in public? Easy. Leave. (Yes, leave the shopping cart. Even better, ask dad to pick up the groceries on the way home.)

There’s no reason to punish a young child for an impulsive behavior they cannot control. Change the environment; it’s much easier, believe me.

Heidi Emberling, MA


Second Grade Standardized Testing July 14, 2011

Filed under: Other Blog Postings — Heidi Emberling @ 5:53 pm

I recently posted on the Thoughts on Public Education website about the possibility of eliminating standardized testing for second graders, a passionate goal of mine. The author of the posting believes we should formally assess children these young second graders, a thought with which I fervently disagree.

Here’s my response:

I was thrilled to hear about Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill to eliminate standardized testing for second graders. The second grade version of the STAR test is given orally, not as a written exam, and there is no leeway for those students who need extra time, as every child must answer every question as the teacher reads it aloud.

As an Early Childhood Educator, working with families with young children birth through 8 years old, I can assure you that second graders are still learning to read and write at their own developmental pace. Why are we rushing to formally assess their institutional “progress” while they are still in early childhood? By third grade, the curriculum advances rapidly and teachers are well aware which children need additional support.

My own son couldn’t sleep the week before testing, anxious from the high stakes pressure-cooker environment of this second grade testing period. These children are still adjusting to the academic environment of formal schooling and should be assessed by the professional teacher in their classroom.

Heidi Emberling, MA,


Summer Sleep Troubles July 13, 2011

Filed under: Sleep — Heidi Emberling @ 11:33 pm

Seems like a lot of families are struggling with sleep issues during the summer months, when daylight lasts into the evening, schedules are varied, families are traveling or hosting visitors, and routines are different from the school year norm.

Children thrive on predictable routines, so it makes sense that sleep patterns are often disrupted by our more diverse summer plans. Here are some tips to help navigate changes in summer sleep, keeping in mind the only three areas we, as parents, can control: environment, schedule, and routines.


-Make sure the room is dark, either at home with black-out shades, or, if traveling, use extra blankets or towels to drape over those lighter hotel blinds.

-Bring your child’s favorite white noise sounds or music CD with you while traveling, for comfort. The same is true for a favorite crib bumper, sheet, or pillow (or pillow case).

-If you’re traveling, but your child is staying home, leave a favorite nightshirt that you’ve worn several days before you leave. Your child can snuggle with it while you’re gone.


-Some families move the evening schedule earlier or later even before they leave home. In this way, the child is already “adjusting” to the new time zone before you even board the airplane. Also, some families allow the child to sleep in a portable crib in their own room a few days before traveling.

-If you can, keep your child’s regular nap and bedtime schedule intact while traveling. This can be difficult, but it is one way to support a regular sleep schedule while away from the comforts of home.


-If you know your child will be up late, move the entire evening routine later. This means, eat dinner a half hour or hour later, followed by a later bath time, pj’s, teeth brushing, and story reading. Bedtime schedules begin with dinnertime.

-If your child has difficulty falling asleep or wakes up in the middle of the night, have a consistent sleep plan in mind to implement right away.

Remember that travel is most difficult for the toddler crowd. They are too young to sleep anywhere/anytime in a baby carrier, but may not be old enough to be amused by coloring books or videos. Toddler need to move, so long airplane or car rides are particularly challenging for this age group. Be prepared!

Many children will need 3-5 days to re-adjust to the environment, schedule, and routines at home when you return from travel. Be consistent with your sleep plan, and they will fall back into predictable patterns quickly.


Science-Based Parenting Post July 6, 2011

Filed under: Other Blog Postings — Heidi Emberling @ 6:36 pm

I recently commented on a post from Science-Based Parenting on allowing our kids to “Fail,” in order to build resiliency and, believe it or not, self-esteem. The premise is that parents are focusing too much on achievement (i.e. “winning”) and less on effort, so children may be avoiding trying new things for fear of failure.

Thanks for this reminder to focus on effort, rather than end product for our children. As the mom of a special needs kid, I’ve struggled with my expectations of what my son may and may not achieve in life. At birth, we imagine the world for our children. We may even envision them fulfilling the dreams we never pursued, accepting the challenges we never could, or taking the risks we avoided. We’re so caught up in the promise of our perfect child, we may miss the fabulous everyday wonder of the baby or toddler right in front of us.

In the early years, we may worry about them missing the opportunity to achieve greatness in a particular activity, signing them up for Suzuki violin lessons or baby gymnastics classes. Never mind that they prefer the garbage man to the symphony. Never mind that the Gymboree parachute makes them scream and they can’t yet tap their rhythm sticks on the beat.

Every year is a new struggle with my son. Forget becoming President; will he ever be able to manage a transition without a battle? Forget Ambassador to Russia; will he be able to put two words together before age three, like his neurotypical peers? Forget traveling the world with a backpack and a Eurail Pass; will he be able to survive a week at sleepaway camp?

My expectations for my son have evolved over the years, and they are still high, but my life improved dramatically when I released him from fulfilling my vision of success, and began accepting him for the amazing, challenging, frustrating, funny, bright kid he was born to be.

Heidi Emberling, MA


Potty Learning: A Child’s Domain July 5, 2011

Filed under: Potty Learning — Heidi Emberling @ 6:53 pm

The most common question I get about potty learning is, “Why won’t my child just use the potty?” Usually followed by, “I KNOW they have to go. Why are they fighting me?” Learning to use the potty can often produce frustrated parents and frustrated children. It would be so much easier if we could just pee for our children, wouldn’t it? We understand when we have to use the potty. We may even know when our children have to go. Why can’t they “feel” it too?

This is a more complex question than you might think. Even though a child may be physiologically ready (they can stay dry for about a 2-3 hour period), they may not be psychologically ready. It’s important to keep in mind that parents have always been in control of changing diapers. A child simply may not have been given enough opportunities to make the mind-body connection needed to both recognize the feeling of having to use the potty and act on it.

For some children, the process of toilet learning goes smoothly. Here’s why:

1. The child is physiologically ready (dry diapers for 2-3 hours)
2. There are few power struggles at home
3. The child recognizes when they are going pee or poop in their diaper

For others, this process is a series of successes and setbacks. Here’s why:

1. The innate need to keep playing supersedes any need to use the potty
2. The power struggles at home may be intense and/or constant
3. The child has not developed any interest or understanding of the potty process

Since potty learning is completely in a child’s domain of control (you can lead a child to the potty, but you can’t force them to go), here’s how parents can support a child’s journey towards toileting independence.

Parent Attitude

What kind of coach or guide are you going to be as your child learns this new skill? Remember when you last learned a new skill? What did you appreciate about your coach or teacher? Children (and adults) respond best to positive encouragement. If there are negative associations with the bathroom, they will resist going there.

Be encouraging and remind children that this is a process and that everyone struggles when learning a new skill. Evaluate if they are ready to learn this skill. If you are cleaning up accidents all day long and they are extremely surprised every single time they pee on the floor, they may not be ready to take this developmental step.

Creating Potty Routines

Most children like predictability and structure. When we create daily routines, they know what to expect and when to expect it. Many children fight teethbrushing, until they realize it’s going to happen twice a day as part of their morning and evening routines. The key with potty learning is to introduce potty “visits” at regular intervals during your day. This is helpful in two ways. First, when children are given the opportunity to sit on the potty before getting dressed or right before bed, they may set their internal clocks to pee or poop during those times. If we eat lunch every day at noon, we may start to get hungry at 11:45am. If we go to bed at 10pm every night, we may start yawning around 9:45pm. Second, by incorporating potty “visits” into your daily routines, you may eliminate the power struggles inherent in interrupting your child’s play for something as tedious as using the potty!

Avoid the power struggle

Since the decision to pee or not to pee lies squarely in the child’s domain, we need to find ways to share power around using the potty. We can set up potty visits throughout the day at times when we might use the potty (before we leave the house, for example), but the child will decide whether to actually go or not. This is the most difficult part of potty learning for parents. We tend to be emotionally invested in our child’s potty successes (and setbacks). Reminding ourselves that this is a process controlled by the child can be a continual challenge.

Remember that great coach or teacher who guided you as you learned a new skill? Most likely, they had confidence in your ability to succeed, providing just enough support for you to own your achievement. Parents may need to dig deep into the well of patience during this process, allowing children to lead the way towards independence in the bathroom. The smile on a child’s face as they master this new skill is always worth the wait.