Being more flexible with babies structured learning can make the two’s less terrible
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Being more flexible with babies structured learning can make the two’s less terrible

Being more flexible with babies structured learning can make the two’s less terrible

by Freya Lucas

May 07, 2020

A new study of children under the age of two years has found that parents and caregivers who adopt a more flexible approach to their children’s learning can minimise behavioural challenges during the toddler years.


By adopting a more flexible approach – termed by researchers as ‘autonomy support’ – and emphasising the child taking the lead and engaging in self directed learning, the transition to the toddler years can be smoother, researchers found. 


Babies who have even temperaments leading into toddlerhood fared the best with this approach, which relies on parents and caregivers watching a child engage in a task, adjusting how they respond based on how the child is managing. 

While it may sound easy, researchers acknowledge that this method of helping the child to be in control is not necessarily easy.

“It’s not about doing everything for a child, or directing their actions. It’s more of a to-and-fro between parent/caregiver and child. Those who do best at this can sit back and watch when they see the child succeeding with something, but increase support or adapt the task when they see the child struggling,” said Professor Claire Hughes, Deputy Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and joint first author of the study with Dr Rory Devine at the University of Birmingham‘s School of Psychology.


Recently published in the journal Developmental Science, the study found a link between autonomy support in 14-month-old children, and reduced behavioural problems ten months later. 


However, the link only applied to children who had been rated as ‘easy babies’ – those in a generally happy mood, who adapted easily to new experiences and quickly established routines. Children who demonstrated high levels of self-control at 14 months were less likely than their peers to have behaviour problems at 24 months.


Being flexible, Professor Hughes said, is key to getting through the ‘terrible twos’ “without things getting too bad or lasting too long”.


“A puzzle game, for example, can turn into quite a different game if you allow the child to take the lead,” she added.

Many toddlers exhibit frustration and defiant behaviour, in what is commonly known as the ‘terrible twos’. Unfortunately, the autonomy support strategy isn’t equally effective for all children: those born with a more irritable temperament are still more likely to be ‘difficult’ toddlers.

Recognising the individuality of each child is crucial, the Professor continued, saying that removing the idea of having a specific goal during play, and allowing children to develop at their own pace is crucial. 


To gather the results, over 400 expectant couples were recruited for the study from the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands. Each couple was visited when their new baby was 4 months, 14 months and 24 months old, and filmed interacting as their young children carried out a range of specific tasks. The research team carefully rated the level of parental support for each interaction. In addition, parents rated their child’s temperament as a baby, and behavioural problems at 14 and 24 months.


Simple tasks were used to test the level of autonomy support parents gave to their child. In one, each child was given farm animal pieces that fitted into cut-out shapes on a board. Some of the parents appeared quite anxious for their child to put the pieces in the right places, and gave them a lot of help. Others spotted that the task was too difficult for their child, and let the game evolve by following the child’s lead.


“We had some children who took two animal pieces from a wooden farm puzzle and started clapping them together, and making a game out of the fact that they made a clapping noise. Here, parents might respond by encouraging the child to make animal noises that match the animals being clapped together,” said Dr Devine. “Autonomy supportive parenting is about being flexible, following a child’s lead, and providing just the right amount of challenge.”


Autonomy support, Professor Hughes continued, is about playful interactions. 

“Rather than trying to make a child achieve a rigidly defined task, autonomy support is more of a playful interaction. It promotes the child’s problem solving and their ability to learn, by letting games or tasks evolve into experiences that engage them.” 

Previous studies have looked at links between executive function and antisocial behaviour, and separately at family influences on conduct problems. This study is unique in its direct observational measures of parent-child interactions, in combination with a group of executive function tasks.


The researchers found the link between executive function at 14 months and reduced problem behaviours at 24 months held up even when controlling for other factors like a child’s language skills, and the quality of mother-child interactions.


To read Understanding the Terrible Twos: A longitudinal investigation of the impact of early executive function and parent‐child interactions please see here

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