Someone asked me what a three-year-old is like. Having just observed a three-year- old, my spontaneous answer was, “emerging from two, looking toward four, and working to meet the expectations of three.” I have been thinking about that since, wondering how to explain what that really meant. Those early years embody such major steps in development and yet within that, each stage has distinctive characteristics.
One of the things that causes confusion for parents and teachers at times in these early years, is that development does not move evenly across all areas of growth and maturation. The development of language, cognitive, social and emotional skills may not match within an individual child. In addition, just as physical attributes such as height and weight vary among children of the same age, the same is true of other aspects of development.
For this reason, children are sometimes thought not to be – or not to act – their age. A child’s skill level or behavior in a given area may not match other areas of functioning within himself or in comparison to others. It is not unusual for a child to seem like a two, three or four-year-old in a skill or behavior at any given moment. This sometimes results in a failure to meet expectations and may then be judged as a deficit in the child. Expectations can work both ways, however, and a child’s strong area of functioning can become the level of ability expected in other areas as well.
All of this becomes particularly significant in this era of children’s early entry into groups. Comparison of a child to other children begins to influence others’ perceptions of that child. The easy use of labels also takes over causing concern to parents and interfering with appropriate responses to a child’s behavior. The prevalence of statistical norms also does not address individual differences.
In the preschool years it is often social behavior that becomes a source of concern. For example, two-year-olds struggle with impulse control. They do not as yet have the social skills needed for sharing and turn taking but also do not yet have the frustration tolerance required for having to wait. Their undeveloped impulse control may interfere with successful social interactions.
In recent years, when the stress in education has been on early achievement of academic skills such as reading, writing, numbers, and colors, there has been less attention paid to the importance of social learning. The response to immature behavior in interactions with others too quickly becomes a matter of criticism and discipline rather than education.
What does this mean in practice? A frequent example is a child taking a toy that belongs to or is being used by another child. The adult response is often one of correction expressed as criticism of “bad” behavior. The child may get the idea that he did something wrong but that does not help him master how to get it right next time. In teaching sharing or turn taking, adult support is needed to ensure that the child learning actually experiences the process, which should involve his getting, as well as giving up his turn.
Some children need adult support to help them control the impulse to take something they want to play with. This means providing attention to the child learning in order to be proactive and help him achieve the control that has not yet been mastered. This may be difficult to provide if young children are in a group with many children and too few adults.
The same kind of adult support is needed when a child does not yet have the skills needed to join the play of others. This is often when children become disruptive, using negative methods in an attempt to be included. Here, too, teaching is needed rather than mere correction, to help a child learn more successful ways of interacting with others.
Many three-year-olds have only recently mastered the skills needed for successful social functioning and in some situations may fall back on younger behaviors. They are emerging from two-year-old behavior while confronting new challenges involving separation, autonomy, and different expectations from parents and others. Some children take longer to master two-year-old issues and need continued adult support and teaching to be successful.
Age four lies ahead, bringing still newer skills and expectations, but with the struggles of twos firmly left behind.