Establishing Expectations

*For a pre-verbal or newly verbal child, please see this post about expectations.

Expectation – a strong belief that something will happen or become the norm in the future.

Early in my career, I spent four years teaching 5th graders in NYC. I have always been more comfortable with the little ones, so this was initially unnerving. Every year I asked my principal if I could switch to my comfort zone in the primary grades, but I never convinced her to make the change.  Once I moved back to VA I got back to my “early elementary” roots. I began teaching 1st grade and I realized how thankful I was for those four years with the “big” kids.

Moving from 5th grade to 1st grade, I knew where my students were going. I had a new perspective. It’s easy to get narrowly focused on one grade’s standards since that is what you are responsible to teach.  However, by knowing what skills were needed as a 5th grader, my default with my 1st graders was to raise my expectations. I set the bar high, not unrealistically, but high and the most amazing thing happened – 99% of the time my students met those expectations. And when they didn’t, I was there to help.

As a mom, I constantly think about my expectations for my kids. I expect Keener to take his shoes and jacket off independently when we walk in the door, and I expect him to greet someone and say hello. When he doesn’t, I remind him and model the behavior I expect. When someone says ‘Hi Keener,’ you say ‘Hi, Ms. __ .  It’s nice to see you.’ He either says it, or I step in.

My sister has a 3.5 year old and she recently told me that she wants him to take his plate to the sink after meals. Right now it isn’t a habit, so she still must remind him after each meal. But, by being aware that it is something she wants him to do automatically in the future, she is setting it up to be the expectation – when you finish your food, you clear your plate.

The first step is identifying your expectations — the ones you really want to focus on. If you do not have an awareness of your expectations, your kids will be confused and you will be frustrated. If out of the blue you ask your child to take their plate to the sink but then do not ask them for another three weeks, it’s unrealistic to expect they will do it in the future without being asked. Therefore, it is important to spend time thinking about what you truly expect — for yourself and your children. That way, you can prioritize your focus and energy on your high value expectations and let go of the ones that are less important to you right now.

The second step is to make it clear to your children what you expect. There is no better way for them to know than for you to explicitly tell them and show them. Use language such as:

I expect you to _____.

Watch how I ____; now you try.

Listen how I ____. Now it’s your turn.

By modeling the language or behavior you expect them to do, they know exactly what you want and can start trying to meet your expectations. However, be sure to pick an appropriate moment to explain your expectation to your child. The hour before bedtime is not the best time to tell an overtired kid that he needs to start putting his PJs on by himself. Instead, give him advanced warning when he is not overtired, and try to put PJs on early for a few nights to make sure your expectations are realistic.

Last but not least, aim high. One of my “high expectations” for Keener, at 2.5 years old, is to respond with “yes, mama” when I call his name and give him a direction. Does this always happen? Hardly. But I expect it, will model it for him, and will remind him when he doesn’t meet this expectation. I will say, Keener, when I call your name and ask you to come get your shoes on, I expect you to stop what you are doing, say ‘yes mama,’ and find your shoes.  Let’s try it again. While this is a high expectation for a 2.5 year old, it is one that matters to me — a lot. When he listens, we both win. We get where we are going on time, I don’t want to pull my hair out saying the same thing 10 times, and he learns that when mama gives a direction, he must stop and react. Set the bar high, and be the support they need to reach those high expectations. Yes, it is exhausting. But what I’ve found through teaching 1st graders is that the short term pain is worth the long term gain for you and them.

For ideas, here are some of the expectations I am currently working on with Keener:

  • Having him respond “yes mama” when I call his name
  • Stopping whatever he is doing when he hears the word “stop”
  • Answering questions and responding when adults speak to him
  • Saying please and thank you when asking/receiving goods/services
  • Staying seated at the table until everyone is finished eating
  • Not throwing toys when frustrated

Expectations: Emerging Language

While we should have higher expectations for a verbal child than for a child who is just learning to talk, we still should have reasonable expectations regarding a pre- or newly verbal child’s language and behavior.  This is the time to build a strong behavioral foundation. As both a mom and a teacher, I have always found it easier to train from the beginning, even with the additional support required early on, than it is to retrain an older child down the road.

I live by the book Babywise, and one of its touchstones is “begin as you mean to go.”  I thought about this a lot when Keener was in his first year, and it has resurfaced in my daily thoughts now that my daughter, Grace, is almost 14 months and beginning to talk. While I don’t expect her to say, “crackers, please,” I do model it by saying it outloud myself each time she is making sounds and pointing at the crackers. Even though she needs a lot more support at this stage, I am still setting this as an expectation.  By creating the expectation and providing a heavy amount of support, I am laying a strong foundation for the skill to develop. Once it does, she knows “crackers, please” is the desired behavior and it will quickly become the norm. Setting verbal expectations also has the added benefit of helping her develop her vocabulary.

Even at this age, your expectations do not have to be limited to language. I know that my 14 month old is sometimes going to throw food off her high chair.  But each time she does, I say to her Grace, we keep our food on the tray.  If you don’t want it, you can put it down and say, ‘ no thank you.’ I will take her hand and physically show her where I expect her to place food she doesn’t want.  I did this with Keener as well and I can’t remember the last time he threw food he didn’t want. I still occasionally have to prompt him when he tries to hand me unwanted food, but it’s a small prompt of you can put it on your plate and say… and he will finish my sentence by saying no thank you. He then places his food on his plate.  No meltdown, no fuss, no discussion.

Finally, I also expect my pre-verbal babies to sleep. After sharing my “sleep tip” email with many friends, I have decided to add a sleep section to the blog.  Stay tuned! I view sleep as something I expect and again, it is my role to teach them how to do it and to provide assistance until they can master the skill on their own.  And what a glorious night it is for everyone once that expectation is met!

Click here to return to Establishing Expectations for children with more developed verbal skills.

Playing for the Same Team

Our nightly routine consists of the same elements, sometimes in a different order depending on our afternoon/evening activities.  Most evenings we will have time after dinner to go down to the basement to play before going up to start our bedtime routine. However, this night we finished dinner and it was time to go upstairs.

Keener: “We have time for the basement?”

Me: “Unfortunately, we don’t. It’s time to go up to take a bath.”

Keener: “But I want to go downstairs!”

Oh dear…

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Consistency is Key

My dentist said it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. I didn’t track it exactly, but after about three weeks I began to consistently floss my teeth every day without having to “try” to remember.   Consistency is important for ourselves and for our children. The problem is, it can be absolutely exhausting to be consistent. My mom, Mimi, offered me the best parenting advice I’ve heard: “If you don’t have the energy, pretend you didn’t see it.”  I live by these words often.

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Sometimes, my son brushes my daughter’s hair with a dustpan brush.  Yes, that is disgusting.  Almost as disgusting as my daughter putting my husband’s cell phone in her mouth, which, according to scientists at the University of Arizona, carries 10 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.

My kids are far from perfect and I don’t do everything right. But I do have some ideas on how to keep the peace, avoid tantrums, and enjoy being with children.  I think that learning to use the right language is one of the keys to fostering a better relationship with your young children.

I plan to post an entry every Wednesday – something that may help you get through to the weekend.  The initial focus is on parent language – what to say and what not to say.  Let’s be real, that’s the only part we can actually control.  We can’t MAKE our children eat, sleep, or speak.  By focusing on our own language and mindset, we can model, give them the tools they need, and guide them to make the choices we would like to see and hear.




“So what I’m hearing you say is your friend found the dead mouse on the playground and put it in your lunchbox during recess? I’m writing this down as I want to get the details correct.”

My principal is a genius.  You can’t make up the stories that you hear in elementary school.  Yes, as a 2nd grade teacher I opened a lunchbox and found a dead mouse sitting on top of my student’s turkey sandwich container. I quickly decided this was above my pay grade and enlisted my principal to solve the case. I do lots of things, as all teachers do, that don’t necessarily fit into my job description, but I draw the line at dead rodents. Read More