Secrets of Daycare Teachers: How to Handle Toddler Pushback and Defiance
Updated: Aug 28
If you feel like your toddler’s favorite word is “No!”, you aren’t alone.
Toddlers are naturally defiant—this “no!” stage is a normal part of their development—if fact defiance is an important step in your child's independence. But just because every family goes through it, doesn’t make it any less challenging or frustrating.
Daycare teachers have seen it all. They know how to guide defiant toddlers into cooperating. Here are some secrets that daycare teachers use to navigate the “no!” stage with calm, ease, and compassion.
Why do Toddlers Resist so Much?
There’s a biological reason for your child’s pushback at this age.
Toddlers are experiencing intense and rapid brain development. They are making new neural connections every second. One of the main things they are learning at this age is how to be independent. The defiance you are experiencing is their way of testing the boundaries of their own independence.
This is also why they often have meltdowns. Because they are testing boundaries they will often go to the extremes which can be really hard for them to rectify. Their big emotions are the side effect when they test how it feels to do things on their own.
What to do When Your Toddler Says “No!”
While your toddler is trying to understand the world around them, it is important to hold space for their development and learning. This means keeping your cool, even when it feels like they are using negativity, defiance, and pushback intentionally to make you mad.
Here are a few key reminders when you hear "no!" from your toddler.
Remind yourself that this is a phase. This too shall pass. They won’t be so “No” obsessed in the future.
Be compassionate to their growth and development. Kindness, understanding, and patience go a long way with toddlers.
Don’t argue with them. You’ll never win. Their resistance isn’t logical and arguing or trying to reason with a toddler is a recipe for frustration all around.
Be gentle with yourself. All the heightened emotions you’re witnessing can take a toll on you too. As their caregiver, be sure you get some rest and emotional care for yourself when you can. When your cup is full, you’ll be much better able to attend to their wild swings and outbursts.
6 Ways Daycare Teachers Successfully Handle Toddler Pushback
1. Acknowledge Their Request
Toddlers, like all humans, need to know that they are heard and acknowledged. Even if their requests are logically preposterous.
Let them know you hear their needs. Repeat back what they are doing or saying, and acknowledge their choice.
This may feel difficult at first. Parents may think that by acknowledging their toddler's wants and desires, it will entice them to want it more. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes they might just want to be seen for having feelings about the issue.
Pushback can quickly become a power struggle, and by acknowledging their experience you can more easily disarm the battle.
Here’s what this looks like in practice.
“I see you have jumping energy right now. Let’s do three more jumps together and then it’s time to sit down, read a book, and get cozy for bedtime.”
“I hear you want to watch more Bluey right now. I can tell you’re sad that it’s time to turn it off. Do you want to close the iPad or do you want me to do it?”
“Uh oh, your crayon broke! I see that you really want to put it back together. You’re sad that it broke. Look, now you have two blue crayons to draw with, can you draw with two at the same time?”
2. Okay Their Request
If what they are asking for is safe, age-appropriate, it might be time to just say “Okay!”
Toddlers are going to hear “no” from you a lot. It is important to say “yes” when you can.
While it may feel absurd and difficult to follow your toddler’s whim, it can be gratifying for them to take the lead. This is true even when it means you’ll have a bigger mess or more work on your hands.
When you give your toddler the ability to make their own choices, you’re empowering their sense of self. Being open to saying “okay!” may actually help them find logical and appropriate boundaries faster than if you restrict their behavior or try to control an outcome.
What this looks like in practice.
“You want to climb up the slide! Let’s check that no one is coming down or waiting to slide. If it’s clear, you can try to climb. Let’s see how far you get.”
“It makes a really loud noise when you bang those two block together! Wow!”
“I see that you are in the mood to scream right now. Your voice can get really loud! Screaming is something we do outside, do you want to go outside right now to get our screaming out?”
For some caregivers it can feel difficult to say yes to toddler whims. Ask yourself the question if you’re saying no just because you don’t want to do what they’ve requested, or if it really is off the table.
3. Turn it into a Positive
The more you say no to them, the quicker they’ll learn how to say it back.
It’s impossible to eliminate “no” and “don’t” and “stop” from your vocabulary when you’re living with a young toddler. As much as you can muster, phrase all directives in the form of positives.
Using positive language will eliminate how often they hear "no” and it will help give them more clarity about what you expect from them. If all your child hears is “don’t draw on the wall with markers” that doesn’t leave them with very many ideas of what they can do.
Here's how it looks in practice.
“Oh, that’s not how we use markers. Markers only go on paper. Here like this, I’m going to draw a rocket ship. Can you draw a planet next to my rocket ship on the paper?”
“We are about to leave the playground. When I say ‘Let’s go to the car’ it’s time to hold my hand and walk down the sidewalk. Can you show me where the sidewalk is?”
By giving your child positive actions to take, and positive language, you’ll be setting them up to have positive language to use when they are engaged in play with others too.
4. Set Them Up Before There’s an Issue
Sometimes it’s helpful to get in front of a “no” moment before it even happens.
Transitions are often a time when toddlers rebel and run the other direction. If you know you have a tough transition coming up, you can set your toddler up for success in the following ways.
Use a timer. The auditory cue of a timer going off can be helpful for a toddler. Say very clearly what is expected of them when the timer goes off. “We’re going to stop playing, put our shoes on, and get in the car for school.” is a lot more specific and helpful than “Then it will be time for school.”
Give them an incentive. If you are getting resistance at daycare drop offs, try to figure out a loved activity to entice them through the transition. Maybe you work with their teachers to play a certain song when they arrive, or have a sensory bin waiting for them. If they know there's a really fun activity to get into, they may be more likely to cooperate through the transition.
5. Create Simple, Clear Choices
The toddler brain is still new—it’s not great at holding a large amount of information at once.
If you’re getting a lot of resistance, it may be because they are overwhelmed by too many choices. Asking your toddler an open-ended question like “What would you like for lunch?” might be too much for them to answer appropriately.
Similarly, telling them “It’s time to clean up. You need to pick up your toys.” can feel overwhelming. They don’t yet know how to break up tasks into smaller actions. Instead give them a very clear choice between two things. You may need to confidently repeat the choices a few times before they fully understand and are able to take action.
What this looks like in practice.
“Would you like peas or cucumbers with your pasta at lunch?”
“It’s time to clean up your toys before you take a bath. Are you going to put the dress-up clothes back in their bin? Or stack blocks next to the chalkboard?”
6. Put Them in Charge
Toddlers love control. If you can empower them to lead the way or help them feel like it was their idea to do what you’re asking, you’re less likely to get pushback.
What this looks like in practice:
Ask who they want to do a task and include them in the short list of options. Watch them quickly jump to do it themselves. “It looks like you still need to pull your underwear up after going potty. Do you want Mom to do it? Or Charlie to do it?” Just make sure you’re prepared to go with whatever option they choose.
Allow them to help you! Even if it’s a really obvious task, if you pretend to play dumb they might spring into action if they feel like they are the leader. “It's time to clear the table now that we’re done eating dinner. Can you show me where the sink is? I don’t remember where to put my dirty dishes!”