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  • Writer's pictureChickadee Contributor

Secrets of Daycare Teachers: How to Get Kids to Listen the First Time


Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández on Unsplash

If you have a toddler, then you know what it feels like to have a kid yell “No!” right in your face.


You know that no matter how you ask, they’ll still run in the opposite direction and defy everything you want them to do.


At daycare, teachers don’t have the luxury of chasing after screaming toddlers. They have the experience to help kids understand when it’s appropriate to run, yell, and act wild, and when it’s important to stop and listen to directions.


Here are four daycare teacher secrets to help kids listen.

1. Talk About Listening in Calm Moments

One of the best times to connect with your toddler is when they are calm. When a child is hyper, unfocused, crying, dysregulated, angry, sad, or tired, they aren’t in a space to listen or learn. Trying to get a child to listen when they aren’t ready is a recipe for frustration all around.

Daycare teachers often use morning circle time to talk about things that may come up throughout the day. It’s important to give kids the awareness of what they can do when difficult situations arise. Affirmations are a great way to do this. Here are a few examples:

  • I am smart

  • I am brave

  • I will listen the first time

  • I will speak kind words

Parents can do the same thing in calm moments with their kids at home. Be sure to keep them short and specific. Let your child repeat them. Maybe go through the list two or three times.

A few times that may work well to do affirmation include:

  • In the car on the way to school

  • When they are playing in the bath

  • During a calm mealtime

  • While you’re reading books

If your child is having a hard time listening during the day, bring it up when your child is calm. With their focused attention, tell them what you’ve noticed and give them specific directions to try again. “I noticed you had a hard time listening today. I know you’ll try to listen more tomorrow. Show me how you use your bunny ears to listen!”

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

Kids are learning so much in the first few years. They need to practice new skills often—even the simplest things require repletion and practice. Keep reminding yourself and your kids in plain terms what you want them to do.


It’s so important, as their parent or caretaker, to be patient while they learn.

We don’t expect them to recite the full alphabet the first time they hear it, so it’s out of bounds to also expect them to understand when it’s important to listen and when it’s okay to play.


Toddlers are naturally defiant because they are learning by testing boundaries. This is normal and natural and while it can be so frustrating to feel like a broken record, remind yourself that this is practice.

Some teachers use a physical or auditory cue to help practice listening.

  • Use their favorite stuffed animal in role play. Let your toddler give the stuffed animal the direction that it’s time to listen.

  • Clap once, rub your hands together and place them on your body to start listening.

  • Tell them they are listening when you give them “fun” directions like jumping on one foot, then jumping on two feet. Use the same phrase when there’s a task you need them to do like putting their shoes on.

  • Animating the act of listening by telling them it’s time to put their “bunny ears” on and use your hands on your head mimicking rabbit ears twisting.

3. Keep it Cool

Toddlers love a big reaction. If you lose your cool when they act defiant, it will probably only entice them to keep playing out that scenario.

Daycare teachers know that if they want kids to listen, they have to stay very calm when things don’t go exactly as planned.


When your toddler does the exact opposite of what you asked, here are some things to do in that moment.

  • Take a breath. The more you can remain calm, the more likely it is that your toddler will remain calm too.

  • Make sure your directions are clear. Instead of saying “I said, it’s time for school!” state, “It’s time to put your shoes on and put your backpack in the car. Are you going to wear your black shoes, or your flower shoes?”

  • Affirm their choice and tell them when it’s appropriate to take that action. For example, “I see you have running energy right now. You can run, after you pick up these cups on the floor. Let’s pick up cups first, then run after.”

4. Don’t say Don’t

If you’re getting tired of telling your toddler “no” all the time, chances are they’re tired of hearing it as well. It might be time to change your language.


Rephrasing directions in the positive can be a game-changer for your little ones.


If you only tell them what they can’t do, they might not actually understand what they can do. For example, if you catch them drawing on your coffee table and you say “Don’t draw on the table!” they might understand but then move to the couch and start drawing on the cushions. Instead, casually say, “Oh, markers are for drawing on paper. Yep, markers only go on paper. Let’s get some more paper to draw, can I draw you a rainbow on this paper?”


Toddlers have a one-track mind. If you say anything enticing to them, they’ll act on it immediately. If you’re constantly telling them “Don’t put crayons in your mouth.” or “Stop banging on the table.” you may be putting the exact behavior in their heads that you don’t want them to do.


By rephrasing your directions into positive statements, you’re telling them what they can do. "Crayons aren’t food, silly! Crayons only go on paper. Let’s color a dinosaur together.” or “The table is for food and crafts. It looks like you have big energy right now, maybe it’s time to bang on the drums or run outside?”

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