Developing Thinking and Emotional Skills in Infants and Toddlers: What Can a Parent Do?

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

What Can I Do to Best Support My Child’s Language Development?

There are several ways to environmentally support a child’s language development according to a behavioral perspective. Children learn quite simply by imitation, so they need a verbally rich atmosphere to develop linguistically. Parents play a huge role in creating a positive environment for a child to learn a language (Christakis et al., 2019). One could positively reinforce a child’s language growth by rewarding the child when a sound is made. In Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, a child would say the word “dada”, and the father would positively reinforce the language by attending to the child, giving the child praise and affection, and maybe even a cookie (Skinner, 1957). The child will begin to pair language with a reward and start developing linguistically.

Learning language should be a fun experience. Parents can create a playful environment that encourages verbal communication, which will enable the child to learn in a natural way. Singing nursery rhymes like row your boat is a fun way to teach the child the rhythm of language. Parents can spend time reading to the child daily, increasing the types of words the child hears and offering a bonding experience to reinforce the learning. Labeling things in the child’s immediate atmosphere throughout the day will help the child generalize by learning in the natural environment. Pointing to the dog and say the word dog, pointing to the cookie, stating the word cookie, and verbally describing the atmosphere, so the child learns to label. Parents can label daily activities as they occur, using many words to explain what is taking place during breakfast, bathing, shopping, and playing. Using words frequently will teach the child that language is an essential part of everyday life (Santock, 2016).

Language must be encouraged within the first five years of a child’s life. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic children’s health division, by the age two, children should have the ability to speak at least fifty words, able to label with a two-word pairing like, “my cookie”. Children, age three, should have the ability to clearly speak two hundred words with three-word sentences and personal pronouns like “I” and “you”. At age four, children should be able to use a four-word sentence, answer questions, and retell a story. By age five, a child should be able to say their name, give many details in a sentence, rhyme, and use the future tense (Mayo Clinic, 2019). If the child is not meeting these benchmarks, the parents may want to consider getting the child evaluated by a doctor.

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What are some of the warning signs of my infant and my toddler being below expected cognitive abilities?

California Department of Education (2019) defines cognitive abilities as “the process of growth and change in intellectual/mental abilities such as thinking, reasoning, and understanding”. Each child is unique, but most children share similar abilities at each stage of development. Parents must know these shared characteristics that typical developing children share, so if their child is not displaying them, they can get the help they need.

A typical developing infant that is zero to eighteen months is very responsive to the world around them. The infant should make noises (babbling and cooing) and body movements that let others know how they feel (happy, sad, tired, hungry). Infants should respond to their names when called, smile, imitate others’ actions like clapping and warm to familiar people, and frighten or shy away from strangers. Typically developing infants zero to eighteen months will explore their environment by touching and picking up objects. If the infant is not demonstrating these characteristics, they may be below expected cognitive abilities for children in their age group (American Psychological Association [APA], 2017a).

Toddlers age eighteen to thirty-six months are starting to respond even more to the world around them. This age group has hundreds of words in their vocabulary, and their internal world is beginning to develop. Imaginative play is possible, they can recall the happening of their day and can attend to short stories. The child’s sense of self is starting to develop, so selfish behavior may arise, and they can be very impatient. Delays in this age group will be evident if there is a lack of language, and the ability to use imagination (APA, 2017b).

Parents must know what a typically developing child looks like, and if there are any warning signs, a doctor should be contacted immediately. The quicker professionals are involved, the easier it will be for the child and family. It is best to seek help at this point.

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What activities can I do with my toddler to promote optimal social and emotional development?

Parents and siblings are a child’s first introduction to social interaction. A toddler can flourish socially and emotionally in a warm, safe environment rich in opportunities that teach kindness, sharing, respect, and self-awareness. Parents should give a toddler plenty of physical touch and affection. According to researchers’ children who receive physical affection have a sense of well-being, an increase in academic abilities, and are more likely to be emotionally regulated in settings outside the home (Ho & Funk, 2018). Playing games that involve holding hands, tickling, cuddling, and squeezes will help create the physical affection that toddlers need. Parents should offer many opportunities for physical affection throughout the child’s day.

Playing games that promote sharing and taking turns will teach the toddler patience and awareness of others. Toddlers are impulsive and have a strong sense of self, so they will need extra help to wait their turn. Games like rolling a car back and forth, building a tower with blocks and taking turns to stack them, and even singing songs where each person has to wait to sing their line. It is essential that the parent’s model this sharing behavior because toddlers learn through imitation.

Reading aloud to the child is a great way to bond and teach socially appropriate conduct at the same time (Mendelsohn et al., 2018). Parents can find books that encourage socially appropriate behavior like giving personal space, sharing, and healthy ways to self-calm. Choosing books that involve issues that the toddler is currently struggling with will help teach coping strategies that will support social and emotional development.  

Toddlers are lively creatures with abundant energy, and when this energy is not released, children can act out inappropriately. Parents should make sure the child has plenty of time to play outside. Running, jumping, kicking, and climbing will allow the toddler to release the pent-up energy cathartically and increase gross motor development. Outdoor play several times a day will benefit the child’s physical and mental health (Sharp, et al., 2018).

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What are the best ways to deal with temper tantrums?

Whether appropriate or inappropriate, all behavior is a form of communication that is serving a functional purpose. According to behaviorists, tantrums exist in all individuals because they cannot communicate their needs, cannot gain attention properly, have not spent enough time in joyful activities, or do not possess the appropriate coping skills to deal with the frustration (Ala’i-Rosales et al., 2018). Being aware of what comes before the tantrum is critical.

The best way is to deal with a tantrum is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The parent must ensure the child is rested, stimulated, and fed. If the child is tired, bored, or hungry, a tantrum is more likely to occur. Toddlers also lack functional communication and coping skills, so using the tantrum as a teachable moment will be essential. Being attuned with toddlers, teaching them functional communication and coping strategies will decrease the number of tantrums that occur in the future (Mayo Clinic, 2020).

The child mustn’t be reinforced while in the tantrum. In operant conditioning, a behavior is more likely to occur again if reinforced (Skinner, 1957). If the child throws a fit because they want a cookie and are given the cookie to stop them crying, the tantrum behavior is reinforced. Parents should stay calm (as to not feed the behavior with attention), distracting the toddler by directing them to another activity, praising good behavior, and taking them to a quiet place where they cannot harm themselves (time out spot) waiting for them to calm down. Forced choice is also helpful for children who want control. If the toddler is upset because they do not want to eat dinner, ask them if they want to take five bites or ten bites to give them a sense of control (Dunlap et al., 2017).

After the tantrum is over, parents must utilize the teachable moment. Analyzing the whole situation to find out what the toddler needs in the future to keep the tantrum from happening again (see prevention paragraph 2). There are times when neurological or physical health issues are the cause of tantrummy behavior.  If these tips do not help, parents can consider getting professional support to see if other issues are causing inappropriate behavior.

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What should a parent do when it seems like even the experts cannot make up their minds when it comes to discipline?

A parent’s job is to teach a child how to be a beneficial addition to society. How a parent does this is up to them. Each child is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another.  When choosing how to discipline a child, parents must look at current research and avoid physical harm at all costs instead of falling back on how the parent was raised. It takes a conscious effort to correct things done in the past. If any confusions arise, it is best to seek the advice of a professional.

In the past, aversive discipline that included spanking and strict verbal chastisement was used to shape a child’s behavior (APA, n.d.c). A mounting body of evidence shows that aversive discipline has a negative effect on a child and will likely cause the child to be more aggressive and verbally abusive in the future (Glicksman, 2019). Because of the harm that an aggressive approach causes, most experts agree that a more positive approach must be applied. Experts at Harvard Medical School suggest that parents, “Have realistic expectations, set clear limits, be consistent, have predictable and clear consequences for breaking rules, reinforce good behavior and be mindful of your own needs and reactions” (McCarthy, 2019).


Ala’i-Rosales, S., Cihon, J. H., Currier, T., Ferguson, J. L., Leaf, J. B., Leaf, R., McEachin, J., & Weinkauf, S. M. (2018). The Big Four: Functional Assessment Research Informs Preventative Behavior Analysis. Behavior analysis in practice12(1), 222–234.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Aversive control. In APA dictionary of psychology.

American Psychological Association. (2017). ACT fact sheet: Development 18 months.

American Psychological Association. (2017). ACT fact sheet: Development 36 months.

California Department of Education. (2019). Cognitive development domain: California infant/toddler learning and development foundation.

Christakis, D. A., Lowry, S. J., Goldberg, G., Violette, H., & Garrison, M. M. (2019). Assessment of a parent-child interaction intervention for language development in children. JAMA, 2(6), e195738.

Dunlap, G., Fox, L., Lee, J. K., Strain, P. S., Vatland, C., & Joseph, J. D. (2017). Prevent-teach-reinforce for families: A model of individualized positive behavior support for home and community. ProQuest Ebook Central

Glicksman, E. (2019). Physical discipline is harmful and ineffective. Monitor on Psychology50(5).

Ho, J. & Funk, S. (2018). Promoting young children’s social and emotional health.  National Association for the Education of Young Children: Young Children 73(1).

Mayo Clinic. (2019). Child development: Know what’s ahead.

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Infant and toddler health: Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace.

McCarthy, C. (2019). The Better Way to Discipline Children. Harvard health publishing.

Mendelsohn, A. L., Cates, C. B., Weisleder, A., Berkule Johnson, S., Seery, A. M., Canfield, C. F., Huberman, H. S., & Dreyer, B. P. (2018). Reading Aloud, Play, and Social-Emotional Development. Pediatrics141(5), e20173393.

Santrock, J. W. (2016). Essentials of life-span development.

Sharp, J. R., Maguire, J. L., Carsley, S., Abdullah, K., Chen, Y., Perrin, E. M., Parkin, P. C., Birken, C. S., & Target Kids! Collaboration. (2018). Temperament is associated with outdoor free play in young children: A target kids! study. Academic pediatrics18(4), 445–451. Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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