What I Learned About Teaching From a 2-Year-Old

When I was asked, quite out of the blue, if I was willing to tutor a 2-year-old, I thought, “A 2-year-old?? What do I know about teaching 2-year-olds?? The youngest I've taught was 9!” But choosing to think of it as a challenge and a potential blessing, I said yes.

She arrived in my house, mommy holding her itty-bitty hand, quiet and meek in the way kids are usually quiet and meek at first meetings with adult strangers. Kyshi was a human being so tiny I could not believe how excellent her speech already was and how fast she could run (about thrice my speed). On that first day, I was mostly a bunch of nerves, not sure how to interact with this 35-month-old toddler, much less teach her. Little did I know that it was the beginning of what would become my most incredible and rewarding teaching experience.

I’ve always loved teaching. But at the outset, my lack of credentials prevented me from getting hired as a teacher. I have found, however, that because I have no preconceived ideas about teaching and I am not educated in the traditional order of things between a student and a teacher, I am very open and child-focused. Instead of imposing a particular method, I try different things and put together the puzzle pieces of what works for the student. I am not successful 100% of the time. I make mistakes and still make mistakes, but I am able to quickly discard the practices that don’t work, precisely because in this area, my mind is an empty cup, and I am eager to fill this cup with only the things that work and that are beneficial for the students I’m teaching.

Below I share some of the most important lessons I learned while teaching Kyshi:

Communicate lovingly. The first two weeks were the most difficult. I was a stranger to her and she didn’t know how to communicate with me yet (nor I with her), except to throw her pencils and crayons on the floor when she didn’t want to study, or scream and cry when she was displeased with anything. Twice, she became raging mad, punching and kicking me nonstop, yelling for her mommy, wanting to go home. In those moments, I didn’t have any advice from books I could draw on. But I did have one thing, which was that I was once also a child and knew that children do not throw tantrums for nothing. I knew she needed something. “Why are you upset, Kyshi? Are you hungry? Tired? Too Warm? It’s okay. It’s safe to tell me what is going on. I want to know. Talk to me properly, not like this, because I don’t understand your screaming and crying. Tell me what you need.” This became my go-to line for whenever she was throwing a fit. I let her know, the best way I could, that I was interested in her wellbeing and that the lines of communication were open. If she hated her homework and didn’t want to do it, she could tell me that honestly; I was not going to punish her for it. If she was tired and wanted to take a rest, we could do that as well. I didn’t know whether this method would work; I only knew that as a kid I would not have kicked and screamed if I felt safe to say how I was really feeling, that doing so would not elicit the disapproval of the adults around me. After about 3 weeks, she never threw another fit.

She began to communicate clearly, telling me when she was tired or not in the mood to study, or if she wanted to eat her snack first. Together, we would look for solutions. If she was not ready to hit the books, I would give her a bit of time to do whatever she wanted while I worked on something else. “Let me know when you are ready to study, okay?” Every single time, within 10 minutes I would feel her little hand shaking me gently, “Achi Kristine, I want to study now.”

Allow kids to make decisions. Kids love feeling responsible. It’s important to allow kids to have a hand in their own learning, starting with the little things. I allowed Kyshi to make decisions as much as possible. Which color crayons? Math or English first? Sing a Chinese song today or learn to write some basic characters? Sit at the table or take a walk outside while reviewing the new words?

Teach by example. Children learn best from watching the adults around them. If you preach the virtue of kindness but they see you being unkind to another person, they will sense your lack of integrity. Not only will they not learn kindness, they will also not respect you. Follow your own rules. Walk your talk.

Practice the Golden Rule. In the beginning, Kyshi would yank my tablet out of my hands (I used it to teach her new songs and to show digital flash cards). I told her in a gentle but firm voice, “Kyshi, if you want to borrow my Ipad, no problem, I am glad to share it with you. But ask for permission properly. You don’t like it when someone yanks your pencil from you, so don’t do it to other people. If I need to borrow your stuff, I need your permission as well.” She never took anything forcefully or without permission again.

It is important that when a child does something “bad”, that you don’t call them bad. Often, they don’t even know what they are doing. Instead, separate the action from the person (“Lying is not good” instead of “You are bad because you lied and liars go to hell”) and instill in them the value of treating others as they want to be treated. This way, they have a compass for life.

Challenge them. Children, like adults, need to be challenged. I find that there’s a sweet spot for how much new stuff is appropriate to introduce at once. If you go too slow, they get bored. If you go too fast, they can’t keep up and lose motivation. They might even flat out hate the subject as a result.

When introducing a new lesson, cut it into smaller chunks and experiment with how much is comfortable for them to absorb in one meeting, keeping in mind the element of challenge — — that little bit of stretch to keep them growing and the key towards gaining a sense of accomplishment. Expand each small chunk with plenty of examples, and relate it to previous lessons. With Kyshi, since she was not hearing much (if at all) Mandarin outside our tutorial hours, I knew I had to cut my chunks smaller. I taught her one or two new Chinese words every day (supplemented with songs to practice her pronunciation), reviewing previous words very frequently, and later slowly expanded into simple sentences.

Make lessons practical. To continue from the one-or-two-Chinese-words-a-day example, I would teach her words that she was using in daily life. It just makes sense that what is practical is better retained. I rarely planned what words to teach her; instead, I would pay attention to what she was curious about and what things in the house she was enjoying. If she happened to be enjoying a cookie that day, I would teach her that cookie is binggan, and binggan is haochi. I would give her many opportunities to say the words, asking her to say in Chinese what she was eating, and if it was haochi or bu haochi. I would ask who packed the binggan for her and if she liked to bring binggan to school as a snack.

I remember she had one lesson in school where they were learning the names of different flowers in China. She never did learn them. Number one, the pictures on her lesson sheet were too small and blurry. Number two, she’d never seen those flowers. Not only were their names foreign, even their appearance was foreign. I am a firm believer that the more senses you involve, the better you learn. You may have a vague impression of what you can see, but when you can touch it, see it, smell it, relate it to other things you know, then learning it becomes effortless.

Do not threaten. There are two kinds of motivation: towards and away from. Towards motivation is motivation towards something you want. Away from motivation is motivation away from something you don’t want. Pretty simple. Taking the example of eating healthy, you might be eating a more plant-based diet because you want to get healthy and have the energy to do many things, or you could be doing it because you don’t want to get fat. Both types of motivation can be effective but in this classic example, it’s easy to see in real life that towards motivation is more sustainable.

Away from motivation is stressful. Imagine always having to run away from what you don’t want; you are essentially motivated by fear, walking around with a constant menacing shadow behind you. But when you run towards something you want, it is excitement and passion that fuel you. There is a huge difference between learning because you love learning, and learning because you are threatened by the consequences of not getting an “A”.

When you want a child to do something (homework, for example), you might get them to follow your order with a threat (“Do it or else I’ll put you in time out” or “You won’t do homework? You want to get spanked?”), but the child will come to fear you. A relationship based on fear is not a healthy relationship. What I find works better is to show the child the intrinsic rewards of doing something. For example, Kyshi had to complete one math exercise booklet every day as part of her math training at another school. Every time she advanced one level, she would, quite understandably, be a little slower in the beginning, but with practice would get better and better, eventually breezing through the exercises before it was time to move up one level again. Once she got good at something, she would enjoy it so much I almost couldn't get her to do anything else. I found she actually loved math, but was often discouraged when beginning a new level. She would lay her head on the table and refuse to do the exercises. During one of those times I gently reminded her, “Remember when you did the previous level and it was also hard in the beginning? But it got easier, right? Remember how much you enjoyed that? With this it’s the same. It’s only difficult in the beginning. But you WILL get better. Imagine how much fun you will have once you’re good!” She gave it another try, tentatively at first, but pretty soon was back to her perky self, even asking me to leave her for 15 minutes so she could focus on finishing the exercises.

Allow children to follow their curiosity. I see children as seeds, born into this world with their own personality, their own talents, their own mind. There is a layer in them that we can influence, but at their very core they are already formed, just as within an acorn is already the DNA for it to grow into an oak tree. With this premise, I believe children’s curiosities are not random. They are the expression of that seed within them. If allowed to play and explore freely in a safe, loving environment, they will gravitate towards their natural inclinations, and thus grow and flourish. Our job as teachers and guardians is to create that environment for them to grow fully into their potential.

Keep it fun. Kyshi was very strong-willed, and I loved that she was strong-willed. I always knew when she liked or disliked something, or when she was starting to get bored. No kid likes to sit for a long time. I varied her activities, taking her to the garden to water the plants while we learned to say “flower” and “plants” and “water the plants” in Chinese, or for a walk when we sang songs. We played hide-and-seek to practice counting in Chinese, and cooked tikoy while we learned cooking-related vocabulary. I would let her stand on a stool, holding her by the waist so she could flip the tikoy herself. Oh how she loved that!

Most of all, love them. Love them enough to always put their wellbeing first. Do not be rigid in your ideas. Observe how they respond to your method. If it’s working, keep using it. If it’s not, change it. If it works for a time but then suddenly no longer does, take another approach. Mix it up if you have to. Teaching is a dynamic process.

Do not make your love conditional upon whether they follow you or not. A teacher is not an authority figure to be unquestioningly obeyed; that’s a dictator. A real teacher is a facilitator for children’s holistic learning and growth, a champion for their wellbeing. Different children have different personalities and different ways of learning. If we can love and respect them, and take our cues from each child as to what is best for that particular child (as opposed to what we think is best for them), then they stand a much better chance at truly blossoming into the person they are meant to be.