Module 3: Neurobiology and developmental psychology for ToddlerCalm

In this module we will go through the foundation of knowledge that forms ToddlerCalm theory. We will take a look at the structure of the human brain, how it functions, and how it develops. We will then look at how this knowledge assists us in understanding human behaviour, particularly relating to toddlers, before looking more deeply into developmental psychology (child psychology).



Introduction to neuropsychology

Neuropsychology studies the structure and function of the brain as they relate to specific psychological processes and behavioursWhereas classical neuroscience focuses on the physiology of the nervous system and classical psychology focuses only on behaviour, neuropsychology seeks to discover how the brain correlates with the mind.

The brain

The triune brain

The human brain can be viewed as being made of three parts when viewed in an evolutionary sense - the concept known as the Triune Brain. The Triune Brain model was proposed by US neuroscientist Paul D.MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book, ‘The Triune Brain in Evolution’.

His theory is that as we have evolved, the brain has effectively been added to. This was developed as parts of our brain are very similar to more primitive animals. The bottom of our brain (and most internal) we share with almost all vertebrates, he named "the reptilian brain". Covering this, yet still internal in our brains, is a collection of brain structures that make up what he named "the paleo-mammalian brain". We share these with all mammals. The largest and highest part of the human brain, he named the "neo-mammalian complex". This is not unique to humans, but is largest in humans and is only shared with "higher mammals".

He theorised that those areas of the brain "control" or are responsible for different types of cognition.

  1. Reptilian brain: the survival brain, controlling essential body functions such as breathing, temperature regulation, hunger and thirst, and fight or flight responses.

  2. Paleo-mammalian brain: the emotional brain, giving us the capacity to feel and give love.

  3. Neo-mammalian brain (the new-rational brain): Critical thinking, rational decision-making, empathy, language, and long term memory.

Although this theory has been revised (and as neurological anatomy is better understood it is known to be increasingly complex), this theory still stands up to scrutiny in its basic form. However, neuroscientists and psychologists commonly refer to the 3 sections of the brain as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain (or system), and the neocortex.

Modern neuroscience

The human brain is hugely interconnected but three major components can be identified: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem.


This includes the medulla, the pons, and the midbrain. It controls breathing, digestion, heart rate, and other autonomic processes, as well as fight or flight responses. It connects the brain with the spinal cord and the rest of the body. 

(For those paying attention this is the Reptilian Brain)


The cerebellum plays an important role in balance and motor control, but is also involved in some cognitive functions such as attention, basic communication, emotional functions, and in the processing of procedural memories. 

(This is the Paleo-mammalian Brain)


The cerebrum (or neocortex), which makes up 75% of the brain by volume and 85% by weight, is divided by a large groove, known as the longitudinal fissure, into two distinct hemispheres. The left and right hemispheres ("left" and "right" refer to the owner's point of view, not an outside viewer's) are linked by a large bundle of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum, and also by other smaller connections called commissures.

Most of the important elements of the cerebrum are split into symmetrical pairs in the left and right hemispheres. The two hemispheres look similar, but are slightly different in structure and perform different functions. The right hemisphere generally controls the left side of the body, and vice versa, although popular notions that logic and creativity etc are restricted to the left or right hemispheres are largely simplistic and unfounded.

The cerebrum is covered by a sheet of neural tissue known as the cerebral cortex, which envelops other brain organs such as the thalamus (which evolved to help relay information from the brain stem and spinal cord to the cerebral cortex) and the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (which control visceral functions, body temperature, and behavioural responses such as feeding, drinking, sexual response, aggression, and pleasure). The cerebral cortex itself is only 2-4 mm thick, and contains six distinct but interconnected layers. It is intricately grooved and folded into the familiar convoluted pattern of folds, or gyri, allowing a large surface area (typically almost 2 metre squared) to fit within the confines of the skull. Consequently, more than two-thirds of the cerebral cortex is buried in the grooves, or sulci.

The cerebral cortex plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. It is divided into four main regions or lobes, which cover both hemispheres:

The frontal lobe is involved in conscious thought and higher mental functions such as decision-making, particularly in that part of the frontal lobe known as the prefrontal cortex, and plays an important part in processing short-term memories and retaining longer-term memories which are not task-based.

The parietal lobe is involved in integrating sensory information from the various senses, and in the manipulation of objects in determining spatial sense and navigation.

The temporal lobe is involved with the senses of smell and sound, the processing of semantics in both speech and vision (including the processing of complex stimuli like faces and scenes), and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memories.

The medial temporal lobe  is the inner part of the temporal lobe, near the divide between the left and right hemispheres, and is thought to be involved in specific memory functions. Deep inside the medial temporal lobe is the region of the brain known as the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, the amygdala, the cingulate gyrus, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the epithalamus, the mammillary body, and other organs, many of which are of particular relevance to the processing of memory.

The hippocampus, for example, is essential for memory function, particularly the transference from short to long-term memory and control of spatial memory and behaviour. The hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain capable of actually growing new neurons, although this ability is impaired by stress-related glucocorticoids. The amygdala also performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions and social and sexual behaviour, as well as regulating the sense of smell.

Another sub-cortical system (inside the cerebral cortex) which is essential to memory function is the basal ganglia system, particularly the striatum (or neostriatum) which is important in the formation and retrieval of procedural memory.

This, believe it or not, is a simple tour of the brain structure and function and is useful to get a sense of. We do not expect you to be able to (or want to) go into this much detail with parents but there are small elements of this we use within our workshops and a basic understanding is helpful.

Brain development

Brains are built over time, from the bottom up (or the inside out)

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Imagine that the brain is made up of lots of plugs and sockets and during pregnancy all of these are rapidly formed but most are left unconnected (but not all). These "plugs and sockets" connect to form neural pathways or connections, forming the architecture of the brain over the early years of life.  Early experiences affect the quality of that architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behaviour that follow. The more a connection or pathway is used and reinforced, the stronger it becomes. In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second.

 After this period of rapid growth, the formation of new connections slows but also connections that are weak (rarely used), and those that remain unused, are lost through a process called "pruning", so that the structure of the brain is more efficient.

Babies are born with all the connections they need in the reptilian brain as these are necessary for basic survival (homeostasis, fight or flight). They also have many connections in the mammalian brain (guiding emotion), though some are more primitive at birth. It is the neocortex that is almost completely "unconnected" at birth.

Neural pathways related to the senses, like those for basic vision and hearing, are the first to develop and fast, followed by early communication skills with higher cognitive functions developing more slowly with peak development lasting from 10 months to 4-5 years before tailing off slowly through the teen years. Pathways connect and prune in a prescribed order, with later, more complex neural pathways built upon earlier, simpler ones.

In the proliferation and pruning process, simpler neural connections form first, followed by more complex circuits. The timing is genetic, but early experiences determine whether the circuits are strong or weak. Source: C.A. Nelson (2000). Credit: Center on the Developing Child

The interactive influences of genes and experience, shape the developing brain.

Scientists now know a major ingredient in this developmental process is the "serve and return" or reciprocal relationship between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family or community. Young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalising and gesturing back at them. In the absence of such responses, or if the responses are unreliable or inappropriate, the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior.

The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age.

The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialised to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganising and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. For example, by the first year, the parts of the brain that differentiate sound are becoming specialised to the language the baby has been exposed to; at the same time, the brain is already starting to lose the ability to recognise different sounds found in other languages. Although the “window” for language learning and other skills remain open, these brain circuits become increasingly difficult to alter over time. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.

Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course.

The brain is a highly interrelated organ, and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar that comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success and wellbeing.

Prolonged stress damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

Scientists now know that chronic stress in early childhood, caused by poverty,  abuse, or a severe lack of attachment (resulted from severe maternal depression for example), can be toxic to the developing brain. While positive stress (mild, short-lived physiological responses to uncomfortable experiences) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system. In the absence of the buffering protection of adult support, toxic stress becomes built into the body by processes that shape the architecture of the developing brain.

Brains subjected to toxic stress have underdeveloped neural connections in areas of the brain most important for successful learning and behavior in school and the workplace. Source: Radley et al (2004); Bock et al (2005). Credit: Center on the Developing Child.


  • The basic principles of neuroscience indicate that brain connections can be reinforced in early childhood more easily than created later in life and that weak or unused connections are pruned ("if you don't use it, you lose it").
  • Emotional and social development is so interconnected with higher brain function that it must be nurtured to allow for optimum cognitive development.
  • Babies’ and toddlers' brains require stable, caring, interactive relationships with adults. Supportive relationships and positive learning experiences begin at home but can also be provided elsewhere.
  • Science clearly demonstrates that, in situations where babies and toddlers are subjected to continued and unsupported stress responses, damage can be done to the developing brain having a detrimental effect on long-term well-being,

Baby and toddler brains

Looking specifically at the brains of babies and toddlers

Here we discuss briefly the consequences of the way that our brains develop, looking at how brains of babies and toddlers allow them to experience the world, and how that shapes behaviour and personality.

As mentioned, when a baby is born its' reptilian brain is well formed ensuring survival, with the limbic system also fairly well developed allowing for early attachment to be created (we will discuss this again in the psychology sections). In contrast the neocortex is underdeveloped in terms of neural connections, and most of the sophisticated functions of it do not really come into play until over the age of 4 or 5 years. 

Young children and babies therefore feel, but do not understand more complex notions such as rationale and reasoning, long term memory (including habit forming) and the development of empathy.

A baby cannot yet form long term memories, this being something that develops between the second and fourth year of life and so will never remember the earliest experiences of their life. However, our inability to remember our baby and toddler years, has no bearing on their importance. In fact they are the ones that shape us and our future behaviour permanently.

 A toddler's brain is incredibly active (at 3 years old the brain is approximately twice as active as that of an adult) and by the age of 3 years the brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections (again about twice as many as adults).

The brain will retain these connections until around the age of 10 or 11, when the brain prunes the extra, unused, connections – on the “use it or lose it” principle; if a connection is used repeatedly in the early years of the child's life it becomes permanent, if the connection is not reinforced it is lost. These remaining connections are very powerful and efficient and difficult to change. For instance the part of the brain that regulates emotion, the amygdala, is shaped very early on. Early nurturing is vitally important to the child's future learning of empathy, happiness, hopefulness and resiliency.

The make-up of the brain means that during a child's first three years they experience the world in a more complete, multi-sensory way than they will during the rest of their life. Therefore the baby and toddler's social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language development are stimulated during multi-sensory experiences meaning that young children need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with stimulating sights, sounds, touch and smells.

A child who has had to use their reptilian (survival) brain often during their formative years (primitive responses to fear and stress) may well have long lasting behavioural and mental difficulties due to a less well connected neocortex.

Social development (self-awareness and ability to interact with others) occurs in stages as neural pathways start to form. For instance, a child does not really develop the social development necessary to share until around the age of 3 onwards. The networks are just not there in their brain. The neocortex does not begin to really form until later infancy and into the toddler years, meaning that important skills such as impulse control, empathy and consequences are impossible. No matter how much we tell them or expect them to learn, the brain is incapable of it at this early stage. Reasoning with your tantruming toddler in Tesco is not only embarrassing, it's pointless. So what can we do? 

Now you can see that we are have strayed from neurobiology, to neuropsychology and are now falling down the rabbit hole of true psychology. Next we will look at key psychological theories that help us deepen our understanding of toddler behaviour and our ability to optimise their development and help them with their daily struggles.

Nature vs nurture

We have looked now at the brain, its' structure and how it is formed and develops. What we need to understand now is how this relates to how our "minds" are formed, namely our personality traits and our regular behaviour patterns.

The nurture debate and the tabula rasa Tabula rasa = blank slate

"The little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences."  John Locke 

Locke was a 17th century physician and philosopher and has been credited as the first to describe “consciousness” in his essay "Concerning Human Understanding" (1690). He described the self as "that conscious thinking thing (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends”. 

Locke believed that the self of a newborn baby was a blank slate at birth and that our experiences of the world from birth would shape our adult personality. Locke stated these early experiences and markings on the tabular rasa were much more important than the experiences and learnings of adulthood, in particular warning parents not to let their child develop negative associations.  

This fits to some extent with our understanding that at birth most of the baby's brain cells are formed but the connections between the cells are made only during early childhood. These connections are enormously influenced by a child's environment (using pathways through reciprocal relations), over and above genetic influence. A child's brain growth does not follow a biologically predetermined path, instead being influenced by their early experiences.

Current genetic research gives weight to this psychological theory as it has moved away from a belief that genetic make-up is fixed and our personalities predetermined, to consider that genes can be activated or switched on and off. It is believed that at least some of our genes are not fixed and can be either triggered, or not, by our environment.

This helps us to understand that although genetics play their part in the formation of both the brain and our personalities (mind), even with the "potentials" in place from our genetic make-up, our environment and relationships determine what is retained and activated and what is not.

Now it is important to look at how environment, interaction and circumstances determine how our mind functions, which we will do in the following section.

Name the parts of the triune brain

Drag the names of the parts of the brain to line up with the correct markers


  • Reptilian Complex
  • Limbic System
  • Neo-Cortex

Which bit does what?

Please match the function with the structure of the brain

  • Reptilian complex
    Autonomic functions (E.g. respiratory, fight/flight, homeostasis)
  • Limbic system
    Emotions, base communication, balance, moving
  • Neocortex
    Thought, imagination, language, empathy

Which area of the brain is capable of growing new neurons?

  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Pre-frontal cortex
  • Basal ganglia

What can impair the process of new neutron growth in the Hippocampus?

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • TV
  • Stress

Please complete the statements by choosing the correct words where appropriate

  • Brain connections can be in early childhood more easily than created later in life.
  • or connections are pruned later in childhood.
  • Emotional and social development is so interconnected with higher brain function that it must be to allow for optimum cognitive development.
  • Babies’ and toddlers' brains require stable, caring, interactive with adults.
  • Science clearly demonstrates that, in situations where babies and toddlers are subjected to continued and unsupported responses, can be done to the developing brain having a detrimental effect on long-term ,

Please select whether these statements about the brain are true or false

  • The peak development period of the neocortex is 10 months to 5 years approximately
  • The peak development period for the neocortex is 3 months to 12 months approximately
  • I need to know all the parts of the brain and how they work to deliver ToddlerCalm classes
  • Toddlers can be reasoned with
  • Babies and toddlers are incapable of true empathy
  • A toddler's brain is much more active than an adults
  • Toddler's senses aren't as well developed as adults
  • Children whose early years were spent using their reptilian brain have a higher chance of having behavioural and mental health problems
  • Repeated experiences create strong brain connections that are difficult to change
  • A child's ability to develop empathy and resilience depends highly on nurturing during their early years
  • Brain connections that are less well used or not used will be weak but can be developed at a later stage

Why is it important to understand the concept of "pruning" of the human brain?

How does our knowledge of the process of brain development help us explain toddler's capability for certain behaviours?

Developmental psychology


What is developmental psychology

Developmental psychology is a scientific approach which aims to explain how children and adults change over time. 

A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus upon development during childhood, as this is the period during an individual's lifespan when the most change occurs.

The three goals of developmental psychology are to describe, explain, and to optimize development (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980).

The emergence of developmental psychology as a specific discipline can be traced back to 1882 when Wilhelm Preyer (a German physiologist) published a book entitled "The mind of the Child". In the book Preyer describes the development of his own daughter from birth to two and a half years. Importantly, Preyer used rigorous scientific procedure throughout studying the many abilities of his daughter.

During the 1900s key figures have dominated the field with their extensive theories of human development, namely Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and John Bowlby  (1907-1990). Indeed, much of the current research continues to be influenced by these three theorists. In the rest of the sections of this module we will cover the work of these psychologists and will also cover theorists that discuss human needs, human connection, behaviour control, and motivation.

Stages of development

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and psychologist, is credited as being the founding father of developmental psychology. Piaget was famous for proposing that children moved from a position of egocentrism (incomplete differentiation of the self and the world and other people) - in other words that they think that everyone in the world thinks feels and sees things the same as them) - to sociocentrism (they understand that people see things differently and can feel differently about things).  Piaget noticed that children gradually progressed from being intuitive to scientific and socially acceptable. He believed they did this because of social interaction. An egocentric child is not a selfish child, rather one who is too young (under 7) to have learned that others may have different beliefs and opinions to them. This theory again fits with our understading of the development process of the brain and the lack of connection in the area that enables empathy.

Piaget divided childhood development into 4 stages:

Stage one: Sensorimotor stage from birth to age 2

Children experience the world through movement and senses (use five senses to explore the world). During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others' view points. 

The sensorimotor stage is divided into six sub stages:

1. Simple reflexes (birth to 1 month old). Babies use reflexes such as rooting and sucking.

2. First habits and primary circular reactions* (1-4months).

3. Secondary circular reactions (4-8monthths) e.g. accidentally shaking a rattle, then trying to do it on purpose; this is the age babies become interested in other objects, not themselves.

4. Coordination of secondary circular reactions (8-12months); baby can control the reactions. Object Permanence also takes place now (babies realise something exists when it's not there).

5. Tertiary circular reactions (12-18months); ‘little explorers’, trying new things to get results. Trial and error experiments. “If I throw my food from my highchair mum makes a funny shrieking sound.”

6. Internalization of schemes (18-24months); thinking shifts.*circular reaction = child accidentally sucks his thumb and then tries to do it purposefully.

Stage two: Pre operational stage from ages 2 to 7

Children start this stage strongly egocentric. Language development is one of the hallmarks of this period. Piaget noted that children in this stage do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism. From our point of view this means that children in this stage cannot use logical thinking (why it is pointless reasoning with a toddler) or use empathy.

Stage three: Concrete operational stage from ages 7 to 12

Children can now conserve and think logically but only with practical aids. Egocentrism weakens. Empathy begins to show.

Stage four: Formal operational stage from age 12 onwards

It is during this stage that children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts and acquires kills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning.

It is worth noting that the second and third stages are long and progression is not sudden. 7 year olds will have more ability for empathy than a 2 year old but not as much as a 12 year old. It is worth knowing that research shows that true empathy is rare before 4-5 years in any form.



The Three Mountains Experiment.

Piaget used a number of creative experiments to study the mental abilities of children in this, his most famous experiment, testing egocentrism (capability for empathy).

Piaget’s technique for studying egocentrism involved using a three-dimensional model of a mountain scene. In the experiment the children were asked to choose a picture that showed the scene they had just seen. Most children could to do this with little difficulty. In the next part of the experiment the children were asked to select a picture showing what another person would have seen when looking at the mountain from a different viewpoint.  Unsurprisingly the young children almost always chose the scene showing their own view of the mountains.  According to Piaget, children experience this difficulty because they are unable to take on another person's perspective – or what Piaget termed:  Egocentrism.

"My doll can see the same as me"

We can demonstrate this in ToddlerCalm classes using the deceptive box technique.



A schema describes both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. Piaget saw a schema as including certain knowledge as well as the process of obtaining that knowledge. Piaget commented that as the child had new experiences then the new information would be used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas. 

E.g.:  If a child had a pet black cat he may believe that all cats have black fur and green eyes, but if he saw a new cat – a tabby cat with orange eyes – he would absorb the new information, modifying the previously existing cat schema to include this new information.  

Schemas are developed through 3 stages:

1. Assimilation:  The process of taking in new information into a previously existing schema, e.g. the child sees a cat and labels it “a cat” – he is assimilating the new cat into his existing cat schema. 

2. Accommodations:  The process of altering an existing schema due to the new information, new schemas may even be formed during this process. 

3. Equilibration:  Toddlers try to find a balance between assimilation and accommodation, through a mechanism called equilibration. As children grow it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behaviour to account for new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration explains how children move from one stage of thought into the next.

When does egocentrism weaken according to Piaget?

  • Between 2 and 4 years
  • Between 4 and 7 years
  • Between 7 and 12 years
  • After 12 years

How could you teach the concept of egocentrism in ToddlerCalm classes?

How can the concept of schemas help us deal with toddler behaviour?

Social psychology

Social development theory

Lev Vygotsky

The work of Lev Vygotsky (1934) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as Social Development Theory.

Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning."

Unlike Piaget's notion that childrens' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function" (1978, p. 90).  In other words, social learning tends to precede (i.e. come before) development.

Vygotsky has developed a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his ideas (1920's and 30's), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete - although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.

No single principle can account for development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes.

Social learning theory by Bandura

Albert Bandura

Bandura's early research studied the foundations of human learning by analysing the ability of children to imitate behaviour observed in others. Bandura also studied ways of treating aggressive children by identifying sources of violence in their lives (negative imitated behaviour). Perhaps Bandura's most famous experiment is “The Bobo doll” (a blow up clown). This research (in 1961) sparked the beginning of the debate of the effect of violent media on children.

In the experiment 72 children were split into 3 groups:

1. Aggressive modelling; half same sex adult pairing, half different

2. Non aggressive modelling; half same sex adult pairing, half different

3. Control group

Children were led into a room with their adult; one side contained the child's toys (quiet craft), the other the adult toys; a hammer, an inflatable (bobo) doll and some small toys…the child was always told “do not touch the adult toys". 

In the aggressive group the adult hit the bobo doll (with their hands and the hammer); in the non-aggressive group the adult just played with the small toys and ignored the doll. After 10 minutes the child was removed from the room. The child enters a new room with lots of interesting and fun toys, after 2 minutes however the experimenter told the child they were no longer allowed the toys (in order to build up frustration) but could play with the toys in the experiment room and led the child back into the original room.

The experimenter then observed the following:

1. How many times the child was violent to the bobo doll

2. How many times the child was verbally violent

3. How many times the child was violent with the hammer


Unsurprisingly, Bandura found that the children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to act in physically aggressive ways than those who were not exposed to the aggressive model, boys were 3 times more likely to be violent than girls.

Children pay attention to these people (models) and encode their behaviour, imitating that behaviour at a later time. Although children did copy models regardless of gender there were a number of processes that made it more likely that a child will reproduce the behaviour:

First, the child is more likely to attend to and imitate those people it perceives as similar to itself. Consequently, it is more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people of the same sex. The results also confirmed Bandura's hypothesis that children are more influenced by same-sex models. Boys exhibited more aggression when exposed to aggressive male models than boys exposed to aggressive female models.

Second, the people around the child will respond to the behaviour it imitates with either reinforcement or punishment.  If a child imitates a model’s behavior and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behavior.  If parent sees a little girl consoling her teddy bear and says “what a kind girl you are”, this is rewarding for the child and makes it more likely that she will repeat the behaviour.  Her behavior has been reinforced (i.e. strengthened).

Reinforcement can be external or internal and can be positive or negative.  If a child wants approval from parents or peers, this approval is an external reinforcement, but feeling happy about being approved of is an internal reinforcement.  A child will behave in a way which it believes will earn approval because it desires approval.  

Third, the child will also take into account of what happens to other people when deciding whether or not to copy someone’s actions.  A person learns by observing the consequences of another person’s (i.e. models) behaviour e.g. a younger sister observing an older sister being rewarded for a particular behaviour is more likely to repeat that behaviour herself.  This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

This relates to attachment to specific models that possess qualities seen as rewarding. Children will have a number of models with whom they identify. These may be people in their immediate world, such as parents or older siblings, or could be fantasy characters or people in the media. The motivation to identify with a particular model is that they have a quality which the individual would like to possess.

There are four processes proposed by Bandura:

  1. Attention: The extent to which we are exposed/notice the behaviour. For a behaviour to be imitated it has to grab our attention. We observe many behaviours on a daily basis and many of these are not noteworthy. Attention is therefore extremely important in whether a behaviour has an influence in others imitating it.

  2. Retention: How well the behaviour is remembered. The behaviour may be noticed, but is it not always remembered which obviously prevents imitation. It is important therefore that a memory of the behaviour is formed to be performed later by the observer. 

    Much of social learning is not immediate so this process is especially vital in those cases. Even if the behaviour is reproduced shortly after seeing it, there needs to be a memory to refer to. Repetition is a factor here. If the behaviour is observed many times over a longer period, it is more likely to be retained.

  3. Reproduction: This is the ability to perform the behaviour that the model has just demonstrated. We see much behaviour on a daily basis that we would like to be able to imitate but that this not always possible. We are limited by our physical ability and for that reason, even if we wish to reproduce the behaviour, we cannot. 

    This influences our decisions whether to try and imitate it or not. Imagine the scenario of a 90-year-old-lady, who struggles to walk, watching Dancing on Ice. She may appreciate that the skill is desirable, but she will not attempt to imitate it because she physically cannot do it.

  4. Motivation: The will to perform the behaviour. The rewards and punishment that follow a behaviour will be considered by the observer. If the perceived rewards outweighs the perceived costs (if there are any) then the behaviour will be more likely to be imitated by the observer. If the vicarious reinforcement is not seen to be important enough to the observer then they will not imitate the behaviour.

Reciprocity & interaction


Early mother-infant reciprocity.

Brazelton TB, Tronick E, Adamson L, Als H, Wise S.


"By three weeks of age, the human neonate demonstrates behaviours which are quite different with an object and with a human interactant. He also demonstrates an expectancy for interaction with his caregiver which has clearly defined limits, as demonstrated behaviourally. In microanalysis of videotape, we saw regularly a set of interactive behaviours which were demonstrable in optimal face-to-face interaction between infants and their mothers. All parts of the infant's body move in smooth circular patterns as he attends to her. His face-to-face attention to her is rhythmic with approach-withdrawal cycling of extremities. The attention phase and build-up to her cues are followed by turning away and a recovery phase in a rhythm of attention-non-attention which seems to define a cyclical homeostatic curve of attention, averaging several cycles per minute. When she violates his expectancy for rhythmic interaction by presenting a still, unresponsive face to him, he becomes visibly concerned, his movements become jerky, he averts his face, then attempts to draw her into interaction. When repeated attempts fail, he finally withdraws into an attitude of helplessness, face averted, body curled up and motionless. If she returns to her usual interactive responses, he comes alive after an initial puzzled period, and returns to his rhythmic cyclical behaviour which has previously characterized their ongoing face-to-face interaction. This attentional cycling may be diagnostic of optimal mother-infant interactions and seems not to be present in more disturbed interactions."


Form the abstract above we can say that reciprocal interaction between care-giver and infant are essential for healthy development. In BabyCalm we look at this in a little more detail and understand the "dance of reciprocity". For ToddlerCalm this is less relevant. However, the concept of reciprocity (reciprocal interaction) is very relevant.

Isabella and Belsky (1991) hypothesised that caregiver-baby pairs that developed secure attachment relationships would display more synchronous behaviour than babies with insecure relationships. Babies were observed at 3 and 9 months and the secure group interacted in a well-timed, reciprocal, and mutually rewarding manner.

In contrast caregiver-baby pairs classed as insecure were characterized by interactions that were minimally involved, unresponsive and intrusive. Avoidant pairs displayed maternal intrusiveness and overstimulation, while resistant pairs were poorly coordinated, under-involved and inconsistent. Isabella and Belsky concluded that different interactional behaviours predicted attachment quality. When babies fail to elicit responses or are overwhelmed by intrusive responses, they will eventually stop trying to engage.

This is no different with toddlers. Reciprocal interactions with a parent help toddlers learn to be sociable, to see themselves as others see them, to learn how to effectively communicate, how to think, and how to cope in their world. A sound reciprocal relationship also helps care-givers to gain self-confidence. Strong reciprocal relationships help parents learn about their toddler's needs and provide opportunities for understanding, communication and assisting with feelings.  This helps the parent to spur their toddler's intellectual, social, emotional, language, and memory development by strengthening connections in the right parts of the brain. When a parent immediately responds to his or her signals of need, the child learns to expect the world to be predictable and responsive. The toddler learns that he or she can have some control in their world. This encourages toddlers to explore new situations and people, and helps them to grow and experience mastery.

Similarly toddler's who do not experience meaningful reciprocal interactions with their caregivers, will be less likely to develop in a  healthy way. They may be more withdrawn, less confident, independent and less able to manage their emotions.

What does social learning theory tell us about how children learn?

How could you use this in ToddlerCalm classes?

Human needs

Hierarchy of Needs

What do humans need?

In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” Maslow introduced a model now known across the world, and used in all aspects of learning, as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It basically shows the common needs of humans and places those needs in a system where some it is critical to have certain needs met before others can be. It is displayed as a pyramid with the most essential needs forming the base.

The theory is that a strong foundation must be built in order for the other levels to build upon one another.  Each foundation level must be strong to get to the next level, and so on.  If one level is weak, then the needs above that level will be very difficult to develop.

The ToddlerCalm Toddler’s Hierarchy of Needs*

In relation to toddlers

1. Starting at the bottom (physiological) the most important needs of toddlers are basic physical requirements that allow them to be comfortable, (i.e. not hungry, not tired, not thirsty etc.).

2. Next are the need for safety and the need to feel safe, in a safe physical situation.

3. Next is the need to feel loved. A toddler needs to feel loved, and feel like they belong within their family, or group of friends order to feel comfortable within their surroundings. Please note that after basic physiological needs and safety, love and unconditional acceptance (belonging) are essential, without which toddlers cannot develop and learn.

4. Linked to this is the need for a toddler to achieve recognition and respect within the group, whether that maybe at home with family or at nursery in their peer group. A toddler needs to feel mutual respect and reciprocity of relationship (recognition of their worth) in order to feel truly comfortable and to build self-esteem and confidence. 

5. Only at the top of the pyramid, when all the other needs are met can toddlers set their minds to the accumulation of knowledge, learning and understanding about the world.

*Based on the work of Abraham Maslow and his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ (1943)

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was a Humanistic Psychologist. Rogers agreed with much of Maslow’s theories, but added that for somebody to really grow, they needed an environment that provided them with “genuineness” (openness and self-disclosure), “acceptance” (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and “empathy” (being listened to and understood). 

Rogers believed without these elements that a healthy personality would not grow as it should. He also believed that everybody had the ability to achieve those goals in life and that when they did a process called Self Actualisation took place. 

"The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, 1951). 

Rogers believed that our one basic motive in life was to “self-actualize” - i.e. to fulfil our potential and achieve the highest level of 'human-beingness' we can.  Like a flower that will grow to its full potential if the conditions are right, but which is constrained by its' environment. Rogers also believed that we are all inherently good and creative; destructive behaviour occurring only when we develop a poor self concept or external constraints override our self-valuing.  Rogers also believe that the main determinant of whether we will become self-actualised is our experience of childhood.

How does Maslow's hierarchy help us to understand the needs of toddlers?

With reference to Carl Rogers, how can we liken the needs of toddlers to the top a flower?

Attachement theory

John Bowlby's evolutionary attachment theory

John Bowlby (Attachment)

Attachment theory in psychology originates with the seminal work of John Bowlby (1958).  In the 1930’s John Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he treated many emotionally disturbed children.  

This experience led Bowlby to consider the importance of the child’s relationship with their mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development.  Specifically, it shaped his belief about the link between early infant separations with the mother and later maladjustment, and led Bowlby to formulate his attachment theory.

Bowlby, working alongside James Robertson (1952) observed that children experienced intense distress when separated from their mothers.  Even when such children were fed by other caregivers, this did not diminish the child’s anxiety.  

These findings contradicted the dominant behavioural theory of attachment (Dollard and Miller, 1950) which was shown to underestimate the child’s bond with their mother.  The behavioral theory of attachment stated that the child becomes attached to the mother because she fed the infant.

The evolutionary theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive.  The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate caregiving responses from adults.  The determinant of attachment is not food, but care and responsiveness. 

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment (monotropy) and that the attachment figure acted as a secure base for exploring the world.  The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.

This theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing an attachment (about 0 -5 years).  If an attachment has not developed during this period, then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.

He devoted most of his career to the study of healthy and pathological attachment in infants and adults and believed that attachment was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators. In 1951 he wrote a publication for the World Health Organisation (WHO): Maternal Care and Mental Health, in which he stated “The infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences”.

Bowlby's main idea was that the child has a need for a secure relationship with his adult caregiver, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. Once this secure attachment is formed, as the toddler grows, he uses his attachment figure as a "secure base" from which to explore the world and has a tendency to seek proximity to those people, especially in times of distress.

Bowlby believed: "It is this complex rich and rewarding relationship with the mother in the early years varied in countless ways by relations with the father and with siblings that child psychiatrists and many others now believe to underlie the development of character and mental health."

Stages of attachment

Attachment stages:

Most researchers believe that attachment develops through a series of stages:

Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson (1964) studied 60 babies at monthly intervals for the first 18 months of life (this is known as a longitudinal study). The children were all studied in their own home and a regular pattern was identified in the development of attachment.

The babies were visited monthly for approximately one year, their interactions with their carers were observed, and carers were interviewed.  A diary was kept by the mother to examine evidence for the development of an attachment. Three measures were recorded:

  • Stranger Anxiety - response to arrival of a stranger.
  • Separation Anxiety - distress level when separated from carer, degree of comfort needed on return.
  • Social Referencing - degree that child looks at carer to check how they should respond to something new (secure base).

They discovered that baby's attachments develop in the following sequence:

0-6 weeks Asocial

Very young infants are asocial in that many kinds of stimuli, both social and non-social, produce a favourable reaction, such as a smile.

6 weeks - 7 months Indiscriminate attachments

Infants indiscriminately enjoy human company and most babies respond equally to any caregiver. They get upset when an individual ceases to interact with them. 

From 3 months infants smile more at familiar faces and can be easily comfortable by a regular caregiver.

7-9 months Specific attachments

Special preference for a single attachment figure.  The baby looks to particular people for security, comfort and protection.  It shows fear of strangers (stranger fear) and unhappiness when separated from a special person (separation anxiety).  

Some babies show stranger fear and separation anxiety much more frequently and intensely than others, but nevertheless they are seen as evidence that the baby has formed an attachment.  This has usually developed by one year of age.

10 months + Multiple attachments

The baby becomes increasingly independent and forms several attachments. By 18 months the majority of infants have formed multiple attachments.

The results of the study indicated that attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with.  Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness. 

Intensely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and interacted with their child. Infants who were weakly attached had mothers who failed to interact.

Harlow's monkeys

Harlow (1905-1981) and Harlow’s Monkeys

Psychologist Harry Harlow is most famous for his attachment research with rhesus monkeys “The nature of love”, 1958. In his experiment Harlow separated 60 newborn (between 6-12hours old) monkeys from their mothers. The baby monkeys were moved into cages with 2 “surrogate mothers”constructed from a tube of wire. One “mother” was left as a tubular wire cage – the other had a clothdiaper folded over it. The baby monkeys were observed with their “mothers” for 165 days.

The wire monkey held a teat by which the baby could suckle milk whilst the cloth monkey did not provide food. Psychologists until this time believed that food was a primary drive for an animal and comfort/love a secondary drive and that babies formed ties with their mothers as a secondary response to the food they provided (i.e. they didn't bond with the mother just for comfort/because they loved her; they only bonded with her because she provided food “cupboard love” you might say).

Harlow's monkey experimental results proved quite ground-breaking in that they turned all that we knew on its head. The monkeys seemed to prefer the cloth mothers (the ones with no food) to the wire mother (the one with the milk teat), as soon as they finished nursing they would abandon the wire monkey in favour of the cloth one. According to Psychological beliefs about love and bonding that pre-existed, the monkeys should be more bonded with the wire (milk giving) mothers, but this was not the case! The baby monkeys preferred contact comfort (the cloth monkey) to food/nursing (the wire monkey) and would spend far more of their time with their cloth mother and it was the cloth mother they clung to when they were scared.

The results also indicated that without “contact comfort” the monkeys only formed a weak bond with their “mother”. Sadly though, neither monkey provided an adequate mother replacement and the experimental monkeys all grew up with severe emotional and behavioural problems, described at the time as “autistic like” (rocking, social withdrawal, self-clasping); several died. Harlow described this as saying “you are not really a monkey unless raised in an interactive monkey environment”.

Ethical issues

Harlow’s work has been criticized.  His experiments have been seen as unnecessarily cruel (unethical) and of limited value in attempting to understand the effects of deprivation on human infants. 

It was clear that the monkeys in this study suffered from emotional harm from being reared in isolation.  This was evident when the monkeys were placed with a normal monkey (reared by a mother), they sat huddled in a corner in a state of persistent fear and depression.

In addition Harlow created a state of anxiety in female monkeys which had implications once they became parents.  Such monkeys became so neurotic that they smashed their infant's face into the floor and rubbed it back and forth.

Harlow's experiment is sometimes justified as providing a valuable insight into the development of attachment and social behavior. At the time of the research there was a dominant belief that attachment was related to physical (i.e. food) rather than emotional care. 

It could be argued that the benefits of the research outweigh the costs (the suffering of the animals).  For example, the research influenced the theoretical work of John Bowlby, the most important psychologist in attachment theory.  It could also be seen a vital in convincing people about the importance of emotional care in hospitals, children's homes and day care.

Attachment theory vs Attachment Parenting

Attachment Theory or Attachment Parenting?

Attachment theory is a scientific theory about psychological development. Attachment Parenting suggests methods that can assist in forming good attachment. Whilst we agree that these methods can be helpful for healthy attachment, we are keen not to make assumptions about lifestyle choices, and recognise that attachment can be achieved using a variety of methods.

Attachment Parenting is a lifestyle choice made up of eight core beliefs:

  1. Prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenting

  2. Feed with love and respect

  3. Respond with sensitivity

  4. Use nurturing touch

  5. Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally

  6. Provide consistent loving care

  7. Practice positive discipline

  8. Strive for balance in personal and family life.

We, CalmFamily, feel that this is a wonderful set of values and so work in cooperation with APUK. If you want to know more about Attachment Parenting, pleased do so here:

However, the media seem to believe that to be an "Attachment Parent" you must use "the three B’s": breastfeeding, bed-sharing and baby wearing. There is a perception that parents that follow this method "never put their babies down".

At CalmFamily we inform parents about the science of attachment theory, rather than promote the attachment parenting lifestyle. Our focus is empathy, evidence and empowerment. We welcome equally parents who breastfeed and bottle-feed, bed-share or cot sleep, babywear or use buggies. Our aim is to be all-inclusive and mainstream in order to spread the calm parenting word as far as possible.

Please choose true or false for each of the following statements regarding attachment

  • Attachment happens automatically
  • Attachment is created through reciprocity (serve and return) interactions with a caregiver
  • Babies are programmed to form attachments
  • It doesn't matter if babies and young children don't form attachments
  • Primary attachment is usually to the mother because she provides nutrition
  • Primary attachment is usually to the mother because babies and mothers usually interact the most
  • Secure attachment means having a baby that will never go to others
  • After 10 months of age, it is likely a baby will have formed multiple attachments (assuming good relationships are in place)
  • At 7-9 months, babies with secure attachment usually struggle with separation anxiety
  • Parents must baby wear, breastfeed and bed-share in order to create a secure attachment
  • Harlow's experiments were unethical (as viewed by today's standards) but remain very useful
  • Attachment Parenting UK and CalmFamily are very different

Connection & containment

Donald Winnicott and the Concept of ‘Holding'

Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English Paediatrician who studied psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein. He viewed the key aspect of healthy development as rooted in relationships and micro-interactions with other people, so taking particular interest in Object Relations Theory. He is well-known partly because he used everyday language, and also from his BBC broadcasts:

  • The transition object
  • The good enough mother
  • True self/false self
  • Winnicott's developmental stages
  • Play

We will highlight three of these key areas in brief here:

Winnicott's developmental stages:  

1. Undifferentiated unity: The baby has an illusion of being connected with, and not separated from, the mother. They psychologically feel in complete control of the mother when the mother responds to their needs. 

2. Transition: If the baby's 'connection' illusion is undone suddenly it can be a traumatic shock for the baby, therefore it needs to happen as gently as possible, and the transition should be gentle. 

3. Relative independence: If the transition to independence is gentle the child will develop a healthy sense of self. Otherwise, the child remains uncomfortable with itself. 

Transitional object

Winnicott believed a transitional object (such as a soft toy) helped an infant to cope with separation (acting as a “mother substitute”) and was therefore a vital aspect of healthy development of independence.  Often they are warm and soft and reminiscent to the child of the mother's chest. He believed that by cuddling the transitional object a child feels they are cuddling their mother and thus feel comforted. Winnicott said that taking away the object from the child can cause great anxiety as they are now truly without their mother and suffer great feelings of loss and aloneness.

The Good Enough mother

The ‘good enough mothers’ role is to provide early connection (‘holding’) and then gentle separation – for toddlers the ‘good enough mother’s’ role is to ‘contain’ when needed and to help the toddler transition into relative independence.

The Theory of Containment

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein was a British Psychoanalyst (though she was born in Austria) working mostly in the1930s through to the 1950s. Klein was most famous for being the first to use psychoanalysis with children.  She also believed that children’s play was their primary mode of emotional communication.  

Wilfred Bion 

Heavily influenced by the work of Klein, Wilfred Bion was a British Psychoanalyst working mostly in the 1950s through to the 1970s. In 1962, in his book ’Learning from Experience’, Bion (1962)introduced the idea of Containment. Stating the place where the child’s projection ends up as the 'container’ (The Mother) and that which is projected, the ‘contained.’ 

Waddell* (1998) helps us to put Bion’s ideas into practice. She describes a situation where a young child is attempting to do a simple jigsaw puzzle, battling to figure out where a piece fits. The mothers in this situation might give many different responses but she singles out three responses that illustrate Containment:

1. The mother might see her child struggling and feel irritated that her child cannot complete a seemingly simple puzzle and the child picks up on this, feels more anxious and less capable of completing it, and eventually starts crying or leaves the room. 

2. The mother might pick up that her child is struggling with the puzzle and believe that the child’s problem will be solved if she simply puts the piece into the correct place.

3. The mother might engage with the child, encouraging him or her to persevere a bit longer, giving hints if needed, getting a feel for the child’s level of distress and turning the piece around the right way if needed, all of this in helping the child achieve a measure of autonomy through the exercise, a sense that they have the capability to complete the task.

In the first example, the mother fails to contain the child’s anxiety about not being able to complete the puzzle. The mother lacks the ability to sit with and transform these feelings of anxiety, with the result that they are returned to the child unmodified. 

In the case of the second mother, she has some capacity to tolerate the child’s anxiety and is able to act in a manner that she perceives as being helpful to the child. However, she doesn’t have the capacity to sit with the feelings that the child has projected for long enough to be able to sift through them and work out what the child is truly trying to say. 

The child is not trying to communicate that it wants the puzzle to be solved; it is trying to tell the mother about the intense distress felt when faced with the prospect of having to do something without her. 

The third example shows a mother who is sitting with the child’s anxiety and sifting through the uncertainty for clues as to what the child is communicating; when she does intervene it is with an eye on how the child is responding, and in a way that allows the child to discover a sense of his own capacity and doesn’t impose meaning on him.

Containment is essentially, holding onto your child's difficult feelings to help them manage them.

The Theory of Containment Illustrated by Modern Science

Luby,  Barch,  Belden, Gaffrey, Tillman, Babb, Nishino, Suzuki, Botteron, ‘Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age’ January 2012, PNAS


Early maternal support has been shown to promote specific gene expression, neurogenesis, adaptive stress responses, and larger hippocampal volumes in developing animals. In humans, a relationship between psychosocial factors in early childhood and later amygdala volumes based on prospective data has been demonstrated, providing a key link between early experience and brain development. Although much retrospective data suggests a link between early psychosocial factors and hippocampal volumes in humans, to date there has been no prospective data to inform this potentially important public health issue. In a longitudinal study of depressed and healthy preschool children who under went neuroimaging at school age, we investigated whether early maternal support predicted later hippocampal volumes. Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in non depressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.” 

This means that how parents care for and support a toddler literally changes not just toddler’s personality, but their brains as well. Responding to a toddler with compassion causes physical changes (enlargement) in their hippocampus.

A reminder of the Hippocampus

A recap on the Hippocampus

Size matters when it comes to the hippocampus.  Having a small hippocampus increases your risk for many psychological disorders including depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus plays a large role in how we are able to handle stress and how we will remember our life. The hippocampus is crucial for our ability to form and store personal memories. It is highly important for restraining the body’s stress and inflammatory responses, both of which can induce significant damage to bodily organs and the brain if not properly reigned in.

Why should we respond to a toddler with compassion?

What do we mean by “respond with compassion” anyway? Do we mean:

  • Always letting the toddler get their own way for fear of upsetting them?
  • Being permissive and giving in each time the toddler cries?
  • Always letting them carry on doing what they’re doing because they are having fun/learning?

Absolutely not! These are all examples of ‘permissive parenting’ which is something we do not advocate at all, but many confuse compassionate parenting with permissive parenting, fearing they will create little devils who are spoilt and always get their own way.

Instead we endorse:

  • Boundaries, limits and discipline (it is not OK for a toddler to jump on nice furniture, put your phone into their water cup or hit the dog).
  •  Saying ‘no’ when it is necessary.
  • Empathy towards the toddler’s feelings when our boundaries make them sad or angry.
  • ‘Sitting with’ a tantrum – it’s OK for toddlers to cry and tantrum! They are displaying valid emotions.

It is very important parents do not confuse the two!

This was difficult to upload into this system. Please find it also uploaded into the Facebook group.

Modern Applications of Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalytical approaches to working with toddlers are rising in popularity once again, having been over-shadowed by Behaviourism for at least the last 50yrs. Popular applications include:

  • Love Bombing – Oliver James "As a parent of a child of this age, you need to realise that if things go pear-shaped it is actually always your fault, in the sense that if you keep a close enough eye on them you can prevent atrocities….. Young children need to be in the presence of a responsive, loving adult at all times"
  • Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn: “You have to give them unconditional love. They need to know that even if they screw up, you love them. You don’t want them to grow up and resent you, or even worse, parent the way you parented.”
  • Attachment Parenting “The most effective way to discipline a toddler is to show and tell him the behaviour you expect. Between one and three years of age, children are learning how they're expected to act, and they learn this from several sources: their peers, parents, and other people of influence, such as TV characters. If their world is filled with aggressive models, they naturally conclude that this is the way people should act toward one another” – William Sears "Babies need to be with people they are attached to well beyond nine months. The first two or three years are the crucial window when various systems which manage emotions are put into place. In particular, it is when we learn to exercise self-control and to be aware of other people's needs. Without these basic emotional skills children may not grow up emotionally competent." Sue Gerhardt
  • Authentic Parenting: "Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible -- the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family." ~ Virginia Satir
  • Playful Parenting – Laurence Cohen: “I’m always amazed when adults say that children “just did that to get attention”. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?” 

Briefly describe containment

Why is it better to respond to a tantrum with compassion?



Behaviourists and toddler control

To understand the basis of most popular/mainstream toddler-taming theories and methods we must understand the work of early behaviourist psychologists. Behaviourists view all human actions as objective behaviours which can be scientifically studied. Behaviourism is used frequently in common child-rearing advice. We will look here at the theories of the most prominent thinkers in this area and consider them critically.

Watson (1878-1958) & "Little Albert"

Watson (1878-1958) & “Little Albert”

 John B. Watson, an American Psychologist believed that “nothing is instinctual; rather everything is built into a child through the interaction with their environment. Parents therefore hold complete responsibility since they choose what environment to allow their child to develop in”.

In 1920 Watson constructed his famous experiment “Little Albert”, a classic experiment looking at classical conditioning and fear in human infants.  “Little Albert” was a perfectly (psychologically) healthy 8 month old baby, his mother was a wet nurse at the hospital Watson worked at. Initially Watson exposed Little Albert to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, face masks, cotton wool and burning newspaper – Little Albert showed no fear of these objects. At 11 months little Albert was presented with a rat and allowed to play with it, however when he did Watson banged a steel bar loudly with a hammer which made Albert cry (unconditional response to the alarming noise), after repetition of this Albert became clearly distressed whenever the rat (with the absence of the alarming sound) was introduced into the room. Watson had conditioned fear to the rat (conditioned response) through the pairing of an alarming sound. Moreover Little Albert became fearful of all small furry animals, a fur coat and a furry Santa Claus mask.

Sadly Little Albert was never de-sensitised and died 5years later of hydrocephalus, though Watson had planned to see if he could remove the conditioned fear responses (what we now know as systematic desensitisation in modern day CBT therapy).

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

B.F. Skinner

In perhaps his most famous experiment B.F. Skinner placed pigeons (which were starved) in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behaviour." From this he discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions. 

For instance “One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return”.

Skinner believed that his pigeons were behaving as if they were influencing the delivery of food and also believed that this experiment could shed light on human behaviour: 

“The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behaviour and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behaviour. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favourable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behaviour in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviours have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing, or more strictly speaking, did something else”. 

Superstition' in the Pigeon, B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947

Using Skinner’s findings why might a child sit in “time out” or go to “the naughty step”?

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Ivan Pavlov

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov carried out perhaps the most famous behaviourist experiment of all, his “conditioned reflex” experiment. Pavlov noticed that laboratory dogs did not just salivate when food was presented but also when the lab assistant who fed them appeared. This led to the famous experiment that coined the term “classical conditioning” in 1927. Pavlov initially starved the dogs and rang a bell whenever he introduced food to them, over time he noticed that the dogs salivated (saliva collected in a cannula inserted into their salivary gland) in response to the bell, even in the absence of food.

Pavlov termed these reactions the unconditioned stimulus (US); The bell and the unconditioned response (UR); salivation. If the neutral stimulus (the food) was presented along with the unconditioned stimulus (the bell) it would become a conditioned stimulus (CS). If the CS and the US are repeatedly paired, eventually the two stimuli become associated and the organism begins to produce a behavioural response (in this case salivation) to the CS. Pavlov called this the conditioned response (CR) which gave rise to the term “classical conditioning”.  This theory is still widely practiced, particularly in dog training. For instance to get a dog to sit we may use an edible treat and the word “sit” (the US). When the dog does indeed sit (the UR) he is rewarded with a treat, the word “sit” therefore because a conditioned stimulus (CS) if paired with the US (the food) enough times, with the conditioned response being the sitting.

How might Pavlov’s findings apply to reward/sticker charts?

Seligman and the theory of Learned Helplessness

In the 1970's Seligman restrained dogs in a Pavlovian harness and administered several electric shocks (UCS) paired with a conditioned stimulus (CS); a bell. The dogs were then placed in a shuttle box (a box divided into two halves with a hurdle to jump in the middle) where they could avoid a shock just by jumping over a barrier. 

Most of the dogs however failed to learn to avoid shock by jumping the hurdle, they just accepted it; they learnt to be helpless. 

Seligman argued that the prior exposure to the inescapable shock (whilst harnessed) interfered with the dog's ability to learn in a situation where avoidance or escape was possible. Seligman used the term Learned Helplessness to describe this phenomenon. The dogs didn't think they could get away so they didn't even try; does it mean they were content to be shocked because they quietly stood there and let the shock happen?

Using Seligman’s Theory of Learned Helplessness how can we understand current toddler sleep training?

Match the psychologist to the theory

  • Albert Bandura
    Social learning theory
  • Jean Piaget
  • John Bowlby
    Define your answer...
  • BF Skinner
    Operant conditioning
  • Abraham Maslow
    Hierarchy of needs
  • Donald Winnicott
    The concept of holding
  • Melanie Klien

The Solihull Approach: Psychoanalysts in clinical practice

The Solihull approach

Psychoanalysts in clinical practice

The Solihull Approach was first developed in Solihull in 1996 by joint working between Health Visitors and Psychotherapists. It is now used in NHS services & Children’s Centres across the UK. The  approach was initially designed for Health Visitors to work with families with children with feeding, sleeping, toileting and behaviour difficulties with the goal of enabling them to move away from using a purely behavioural approach. Many practitioners feel under pressure to come up with ‘an answer’ or to offer a ‘technique’ or ‘solution’ very early on in meeting a parent. 

The Solihull Approach aims to give  professionals the tools to enable a parent to understand the ‘story’ into which a current problem fits, this often enables a parent to find their own solution. Further aims are to improve parental sensitivity and responsiveness within the parent/child relationship. 

The Solihull Approach combines three concepts, those of containment, reciprocity and behavioural management.

Containment:  psychoanalytic concept (Melanie Klein, 1952, Bion 1959)

The process of helping a person contain their own anxiety and emotion so they do not feel overwhelmed by these feelings and therefore have the capacity to think about the situation. This restores capacity to process emotions. 

  • Containment is the notion of being able to hold onto another’s feelings and then give them back detoxified and bearable. This relies on self-knowledge of what is ‘mine’ and what is ‘others’ 
  • Enables self-regulation

Reciprocity: child development concept (Brazelton, 1974)

  • Describes the process where the parent is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the child and the child responds to the parents in a two way flow of communication. Sensitive parenting. 
  • Experiencing two way communication is the cornerstone for all future relationships 
  • The basis for the development of language and communication, patterns of eating or drinking, waking and sleeping and self-control/regulation. 
  • The ‘dance of reciprocity’ is critical to the idea that difficult things can be made positive again and hence the concept of ‘resilience’ 
  • Tuning into children’s development needs

Behaviour management: behaviourism (Skinner, 1938) 

  • Inadequate containment or reciprocity will equal behaviour problems 
  • A goal is for parents teach children self-control so enabling them to participate in society 
  • This is seen to be achieved through external reward (e.g. positive attention) as helping the child to learn to internalise both restraint and satisfaction for themselves. 
  • Children need consistent boundaries to feel safe and to try out new things

The key point regarding the Solihull approach is that it recognises that behaviour can be changed but that in order to change it in a healthy way for our toddler's development, this must happen with compassion, containment, and reciprocity.


Rewards and punishments

Rewards and punishments

Rewards and punishments are motivation tools. In ToddlerCalm we often describe them as "carrots and sticks". The carrot to tempt the donkey forward and the stick to ensure it is negative for the donkey to stay still. Both are tools to "motivate" and change behaviour. For a minute we will go back to Skinner, whose most famous work created the idea of rewards and punishments.

Operant conditioning

Skinner is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s (1905) law of effect. Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect - Reinforcement. Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened).

Skinner (1948) studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a 'Skinner Box' which was similar to Thorndike’s puzzle box.

B.F. Skinner (1938) coined the term operant conditioning; it means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response.

We can all think of examples of how our own behavior has been affected by reinforcers and punishers. As a child you probably tried out a number of behaviors and learned from their consequences.  

For example, if when you were younger you tried smoking at school, and the chief consequence was that you got in with the crowd you always wanted to hang out with, you would have been positively reinforced (i.e. rewarded) and would be likely to repeat the behavior. 

If, however, the main consequence was that you were caught, caned, suspended from school and your parents became involved you would most certainly have been punished, and you would consequently be much less likely to smoke now.

Positive Reinforcement

Skinner showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner box. The box contained a lever on the side and as the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever. 

The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.

Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. For example, if your teacher gives you £5 each time you complete your homework (i.e. a reward) you will be more likely to repeat this behavior in the future, thus strengthening the behavior of completing your homework.

Negative Reinforcement

The removal of an unpleasant reinforcer can also strengthen behavior. This is known as negative reinforcement because it is the removal of an adverse stimulus which is ‘rewarding’ to the animal or person. Negative reinforcement strengthens behavior because it stops or removes an unpleasant experience. 

For example, if you do not complete your homework, you give your teacher £5. You will complete your homework to avoid paying £5, thus strengthening the behavior of completing your homework.

Skinner showed how negative reinforcement worked by placing a rat in his Skinner box and then subjecting it to an unpleasant electric current which caused it some discomfort. As the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so the electric current would be switched off. The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of escaping the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.

In fact Skinner even taught the rats to avoid the electric current by turning on a light just before the electric current came on. The rats soon learned to press the lever when the light came on because they knew that this would stop the electric current being switched on.

These two learned responses are known as Escape Learning and Avoidance Learning.

Punishment (weakens behavior) 

Punishment is defined as the opposite of reinforcement since it is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. It is an aversive event that decreases the behavior that it follows

Like reinforcement, punishment can work either by directly applying an unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially rewarding stimulus, for instance, deducting someone’s pocket money to punish undesirable behavior.

Note: It is not always easy to distinguish between punishment and negative reinforcement.

There are many problems with using punishment, such as:

  • Punished behavior is not forgotten, it's suppressed - behavior returns when punishment is no longer present.

  • Causes increased aggression - shows that aggression is a way to cope with problems.

  • Creates fear that can generalize to undesirable behaviors, e.g., fear of school.

  • Does not necessarily guide toward desired behavior - reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.

Modern applications

Operant conditioning theory is used across our entire society to create tools for motivating both adults and children at school and at work. It is so widely used that one might assume that the evidence for it's use working to motivate people is overwhelming. 

Discuss the use of "carrots and sticks" to motivate toddlers?

The case against punishments


There has been an interesting change in our society, moving away from using punishments (so much) to "motivate" children. Although most parents still use punishments to some extent, this is a toned down form of the punishments that used to be very commonplace (smacking for instance). Many parents use more modern punishment techniques even though they may not always characterise them as a punishment. Great examples of this include:

  • Time Out
  • Naughty Step
  • Sending to their room
  • Toy confiscation
  • Missing supper
  • Withdrawing parenting attention (love)

Why not?

These methods often produce a quick response. They work - don't they? It depends what you mean by work!

“Behind every behaviour is an impulse or an attempt to communicate that can be supported? Even 'hostile' gestures can come from a basic desire to communicate. People hurt others only as much as they themselves are hurting. When they hurt others it is because they are often feeling hurt, mad or  scared themselves. A child who pushes another child out of the toy car may be feeling crowded and scared. When a child is hurting other children it may be hard to remember that he’s feeling vulnerable or scared himself. But if you merely punish him you load more hurt onto the existing hurt. If instead you take into account his circumstances and motivation, you can approach conflict resolution from a less punitive perspective than ‘let’s punish the wrong doer.’” Laura Davis “Becoming the Parent You Want To Be”

As described in great detail in "Unconditional Parenting", ignoring a toddler, placing a toddler in 'Time Out' or seating them on 'The Naughty Step' does nothing to help the child release the hurtful emotion, instead it indicates to them that adults do not want to listen and instead the child should contain the hurtful feelings within themselves, it does not reduce their drive to perform the undesirable behaviour again. If the toddler is regularly punished in this way it is only natural that in time they will stop sharing their feelings with us. Love withdrawal techniques also make our love conditional, teaching the child that we only love them when they are 'good' – in many cases this can compound the issue, particularly when the child's unwanted behaviour is initially sparked by a need for more love and attention – e.g.: the arrival of a sibling.

Furthermore, if we turn away a toddler who is experiencing "big scary feelings" we are missing a huge opportunity to teach them through modelling how to manage their emotions. If we, as grown ups (with well developed brains) cannot cope with their feelings, are so freaked out by them that we send them away, then a toddler certainly will not be able to see a way of working through those feelings themselves. 

Might the answer then be to provide unconditional love and a safe environment for the child to express their unwanted feelings? Psychologist Martin Hoffman believes that Time Out is crueller than any other punishments as the child does not understand why he has been bad or know when mum is coming back. This loss of parental love does work at controlling behaviour but at terrific cost. 'Time out from positive reinforcement' was initially used to suppress behaviour in lab rats (for instance with sensory deprivation or removal of food in order to control behaviour) as with much of Behaviourism these animal based experiments grew into what is now the leading approach to child discipline.

If we were to lead with connection at this time and help the child to understand and manage their feelings, we are showing them how to do it themselves in the future - maybe not soon - but eventually.

ToddlerCalm time-out and time-in

As described above, connection at difficult times is essential. When your toddler is having a tantrum or dealing with their big feelings, we strongly advocate taking some time with them to connect and work through those. We call that "time-in"; when you take your child into a safe space for you both and spend some time with them. 

The only 'time out' ToddlerCalm advocates is the use of 'time out for parents' where instead of removing the toddler, at times of high stress, the parent may decide to retreat (whether physically or mentally) for a few moments in order to calm themselves down so they may respond appropriately and respectfully to their child. This is a simple mindful technique and we will talk later about using the "pause" button.


Many parents feel instinctively that punishment is a negative approach and so do choose to reduce the amount of "punishing" tools that they use in favour of rewarding their children's desirable behaviour. So after a few questions to get you thinking, let's look at rewards...

How can we draw a parallel between Time Out and Controlled Crying? How and why do they both work?

The case against rewards


“The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.” Alfie Kohn – Punished By Rewards.

In mainstream parenting techniques, rewards are now seen as the best and most positive form of behaviour modification for children. Operant conditioning has helped to form the most common of parenting (and school system) methods. For example:

  • Sticker/ Reward Charts
  • ‘Golden Time’
  • Marbles in a Jar
  • Bribery
  •  “If Then”

Rewards work on increasing extrinsic (external) motivation – that is encouraging a child to behave in a certain way in order to receive a reward – a classic behavioural tool. e.g.: “eat all your dinner and you can have a chocolate”, “brush your teeth and you can have a sticker”.  “If you pick up your toys then we’ll go to the park.” 

In the short term these techniques work well and most importantly for parents they work quickly. The effects however are not long lasting and are highly superficial, for a real change to take place we need to work with our child's intrinsic (internal) motivation – that is the motivation that comes from within.

Rewards such as sticker charts work only on a superficial extrinsic level and can actually undermine intrinsic motivation, making the child less likely to do the specific task unless they are given a reward. This sort of 'motivation' (sticker charts and the like) are actually a form of compliance tool, the child is complying with their behaviour whilst the reward is on offer, remove the reward and you lose compliance (positive reinforcement extinction). Compliance does not indicate an internally motivated change has taken place.

Autonomous motivation

Ed Deci

Ed Deci (PhD) is the founder of autonomous motivation and the concept of self determination. His motivation works are used by some of the most forward thinking companies in the world and have ushered in a new era of motivation theory. He began on the hunch that the human mind is more subtle and nuanced than simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. He has published 10 books in 40 years and the first to experiment on intrinsic motivation using human subjects.

Please enjoy this video that briefly sums up his thinking:

Currently Professor of Psychology at Rochester University

Grantee of National Institute of Mental Health, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child health and Human Development amongst many accreditations.

But I can praise my child right?

When praise goes wrong

Once we have accepted that both rewards and punishment are ineffective, what are we left with? When I talk to parents, the answer is praise. Something along the lines of "I am building my child's self-esteem by telling him how great he is".

Unfortunately, the majority of praise given to our children is very shallow and can have the opposite effect of that desired, for instance it can cause a child to lose interest in a task and not push themselves to do better next time. Praise can also lead to our children believing they are only 'good' if they are perfect which in turn can lead to a fear of failure. Constantly telling a child “good job” is meaningless. Praising looks in particular can be very damaging. 

Effective praise

There are ways to use praise effectively, i.e.: “Say what you see” and questioning to show your child that you are interested and appreciate their efforts. “Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines - rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.” (H. Ginott, 1965)

What we say to our children is very powerful to them. It is important to offer acknowledgement, encouragement and attention through our words.  Praise can be a very effective tool for helping a child to learn that we value and love them.

1. Notice what your child is doing & comment on what you see “I can see you’ve built a train track, and now the train is going over the bridge” “I can see all your dollies are sitting in a line, and you’ve given each of them a cake”

2. Show a genuine interest & enthusiasm “I see lots of green on this drawing; tell me about what you’ve drawn” “I see all your cars are in a row, tell me about what they’re doing”

3. Tell your child how their behaviour makes you feel/ the effects of their behaviour “I feel so proud inside when I see you sat there chatting to your dolls” “I feel so happy when you join me to tidy up the toys”. Use this with caution.

4. Show an interest in their behaviour by asking questions "I noticed you gave your brother a big cuddle when he fell over, what made you decide to do that?”

5. Model self-praise: “I’m so proud of myself for cooking this dinner. I didn’t know if I’d have the time or energy, but I’m so glad now that I decided to go for it”

6. Be very clear and specific “I’m feeling really happy that you put your books back on the shelf” versus “good girl for tidying”

7. Always focus your attention on effort and not outcome “I noticed how hard you had to work to climb up that slide” not “well done for getting to the top”

8. Never mix praise with a put down ”I’m feeling really happy that you got dressed so quickly, for once”

Select all the ways that you can praise your child without a negative impact

  • Say what you see
  • Say "well done" when they achieve a goal
  • Say "thank you" when you mean it
  • Call them "good" a lot
  • Tell your child how their behaviour makes them feel
  • Be clear and specific about the behaviour that made you happy
  • Let them know that it's great that they are behaving for once
  • Take a genuine interest in their activity or behaviour
  • Tell you toddler you are proud of yourself
  • Show enthusiasm for their effort
  • Tell them you love them when they comply

Why do you think this kind of praise is superior to common types of praise and reward?