about offering physical guidance to support toddlers (spoiler alert: there is no formal training on how to do this)

wwmt phys guide alana enzo

Offering physical guidance is something that no adult can escape if you are shaping the behavior of an infant or toddler.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in your Montessori program, or if you are a parent at your house, or if you are with a young child out and about in the community.

Interestingly though, despite my personal experience going through AMI training, completing ECE coursework required in America in order to teach preschool, and even completing my master’s degree, no one at any point teaches teachers how to offer safe and effective physical guidance with infants or toddlers.  Like, literally there is zero guidelines on how to touch or “handle” a baby or toddler in safe yet supportive ways.

“They” (whoever “they” is) just assume every adult will naturally know how to handle a baby or toddler’s body, or how to offer guidance to help them be successful in doing whatever it is you are trying to get done in the moment.  But the truth is, since no one out there has a formally mandated professional opinion on this critical area of early childhood care and education, we’re just winging it.  And I am happy to be the first to say that winging it when it comes to handling a young child or baby’s body is a really slippery slope and an uncomfortable one to traverse when you find yourself in tense situations with a young child or baby professionally.

Some examples…

~ I once worked with a baby who would almost reflexively throw himself onto the ground head first  any time he got frustrated about anything.  This kid went home with so many “head bump” reports, and his parents knew he was liable to do this. But no one really knew the optimal way to respond and support him when he went down.

~ I see a lot of assistants drag children around by the arm, or ask them to get up while already pulling up on their arms.

~ Frankly, no one knows what to anticipate or what to do when  a child loses it and is in a  full blown melt down tantrum.  Let’s just keep it real.  There isn’t much you can do.  We can’t just send this child to their childproofed, safe bedroom until it blows over.  We’re in a classroom where 90% of the environment is constructed out of wood.

~ What are you supposed to do when a child arrives at school so wrought with separation anxiety that they keep running back to the classroom door and tantruming on the ground right next to the door, trying to open the door and run out of the classroom, when it’s morning arrival time, and literally the entire rest of the class is  trying to arrive to school for the day?   Does anyone else out there know what to do other than continue to pick that child up and move his body out of the foot traffic every single time he tries to cling to the door knob and lay in front of the classroom door?

~ The worst-case example… I once got accused of questionable physical contact because I tried offering encouraging upward nudges under the armpits of a child who would repeatedly drop to the ground and rag doll when it was time to use the toilet around circle time, refusing to move.  With me, I would do the armpit nudge strategy, he would think I was going to pick him up, and he would start to rise back up onto his feet.  Except I would just let him lift himself back up and wouldn’t proceed to carry him.   I wouldn’t even wrap my fingers around his rib cage because that gentle upward nudge with my fingers was a simple enough cue to get the child to stand up.

This technique worked for me all the time; but this strategy didn’t work with one of my assistants, who then ran to the boss with the false accusation that I was “hurting” this child… by offering lifts under his armpits whenever he rag dolled, LOL.  (try this on yourself: relax your shoulder, stick your outstretched fingers of the opposite hand horizontally under your armpit, and lift your fingers upward gently.  Yeah. There’s obviously no way this could cause any harm).

Long story short, the assistant got frustrated because that kid caused her to throw her back out and the strategy didn’t work for her because he didn’t like her, she ran to the boss and complained about me,  I got fired, and this ridiculous accusation was the “reason” I got fired.  The assistant then became the lead of the classroom, and that poor child hated her so much that he started hating school altogether.  He even bit her, which was the total opposite of the otherwise happy, loving, easygoing child I knew, save for his tendency to rag doll when it was time for bathroom visits (and honestly would you rather enjoy circle time, or go to the bathroom? Exactly).   His parents ended up pulling him out of the program.


So what ARE we supposed to do?  Helping young children is going to require physical guidance, like it or not.  Except no one is giving us any protocols to stand behind.

It is especially taboo for an adult to intervene physically particularly with toddlers who are upset, tantruming, and not in agreement about what needs to be happening in the moment.  In training, no one tells you that your graceful words, your beautiful presentations, and the beautifully prepared environment  don’t always help a child follow through with instruction.  No one at training tells you what to do when it’s time to do something and the child just won’t move or respond.

And this is exactly where physical guidance becomes necessary, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with that reality.

We need to get over this paradox as an American societal / current state of the early childhood educational culture, where we are  super hands-off, passive, fear-ridden, and  took “positive discipline” to a level of absurdity when it comes to children, and yet no one is telling us how to handle them.  I know that adults can be inclined to let children run the show the moment the child starts to tantrum or cry because we are too afraid to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.

Full disclosure: I have to use physical guidance every day I’m at work, otherwise my classroom would be a dysfunctional mess where the children were an emotional, defiant mess, and no one ever got anything productive done.   Whether it is requiring a hand hold, physically putting my arm between two children who are quarreling, picking a child up and moving them away from a location to stop a disruption, I have to guide with “physical guidance”.  How do you think I am successful getting children to sleep or eat or behave while parents struggle at home?  I use physical guidance when my verbal guidance isn’t enough.

Words are just sounds if they are not paired with a meaningful, experiential outcome in reality.  So I pair my words with a physical, tangible, sensorial outcome of physical guidance where and when needed.  Physical guidance can be gentle and yet effective enough to produce the outcomes of child follow-through.  And if you do it right, you don’t have to be afraid of the need to use it.

Consider it this way…  if an elderly person was too old to care for their body independently, or if they had cognitive decline and lacked the wherewithal to manage their daily behavior– even if they were fully physically capable of walking around and doing things themselves– we would not leave them unassisted to fend for themselves and do as they felt so naturally inclined.  That would be considered cruel.

Likewise, we must be there for the young child and take over for them when they lack the physical ability or the cognitive/ emotional capacity to act or choose optimally for themselves.  We also don’t always have the luxury of waiting until young children are willing or ready to move forward on their own volition  before physical assistance is offered.  Life is constantly moving forward, ready or not.  My goal is to help the child move forward with the moment.  They might need physical guidance in this exact moment, or they might need physical guidance today.  But next time, hopefully they won’t.  I’m not trying to let this need hang around.


Providing physical assistance by taking over for the child is respectful, gentle, and compassionate if :

  1.  You tried to get them to work independently by instructing verbally before resorting to physical assistance.  You also tried gestural prompts like tapping items you want them to touch, pointing where you want them to go, gesturing the “let’s go” hand gesture.   But it didn’t produce results.
  2.  You are telling them what you are going to do to their body before you ever touch their body.
  3. Your touch is gentle enough/ harmless.
  4. You are either silent if you can’t remain calm,  or matter-of-fact/  supportive in the emotionality of your vocal tone as you do what needs to be done, narrating as you go.
  5. You have consistent expectations concerning your environment, your routines,  your schedule, or the activity. In other words, nothing should be a surprise.   If you can say “this is always what we do”, and if “what you do” is supposed to be harmless, like changing a diaper, or walking around with a mop safely, I feel it is okay to step in and take over with physical guidance if the child needs to get themselves on the same page as the expectations/ routines/ schedule,  but just doesn’t feel like it in that moment.
  6. You need to know how to offer physical guidance without hurting a child’s body.


  1. Grab the materials before you resort to touching the child’s body.  Example… if they are swinging the mop around in the air, grab the mop, not the child’s arm. If they are throwing puzzle pieces, or trying to run away with work in their hands, grab the work, then the child will hopefully stop their body.  It doesn’t mean you now have permission to go around yanking work out of the children’s hands left and right.  I’m talking dangerous situations here.
  2. Adult-passive hand hold.  If you need a child to walk from one place to another, offer your hand, and let the child grab your hand as often as possible.  The adult is the passive recipient of the child’s active grab.  DO NOT GRAB THE CHILD’S ARM AND YANK THEM UP, OR PULL THEM AROUND.  People can totally walk together peacefully by doing this simple thing called “holding hands and walking together”.
  3. adult-active hand hold. Hold the young child around the wrist, not the hand, so that if they suddenly try to pull away, their joints are safe; and so that there is less chance that their hand will slip out of the hold in an unsafe circumstance  (parking lot or crowd).   If you must be the “active” partner in a hand hold with a young child, you must still both be willing to walk forward together.   The child is still using their own effort to move in the same direction as you.  You can and may need to slow your pace down so that the child isn’t dragged along.  This is good for a circumstance where, for example, you know they could still try to run off into oncoming traffic or into a crowd if you aren’t initiating the hold.
  4. If the child pulls away from an “adult-active” hand hold in a safe environment (for example, in the classroom or home setting where the whole environment is gated or doored off) , the adult should let go of a hand hold immediately, even if it results in the child falling to the ground as a result of their own force.  You were supposed to be walking together. And one person pulling upon another can be dangerous for both people.  The child could drag down the adult, who could trip and fall; and both of you could get hurt.  Just let go.  The child will learn from their own stumble not to pull on other people when holding hands.
  5. If the child tries to pull away from a hand hold in an unsafe environment, stop, and pick the child up.  They are showing you they don’t have the self-control to walk forward together.
  6. If you need to physically stop a young child from hurting someone else or you, use your arm as a block between the children’s oncoming assaults and the target.  The target could be another child, you, or even materials in the environment.  Say “I won’t let ____ get hurt/ damaged”.  (I won’t let myself get hurt/ I won’t let bobby get hurt/ I won’t let our work get damaged).  The child will learn that you won’t let recipients of intended harm receive the harm.  You can’t control a child’s desire to hit, but you can prevent other people and things from receiving harm.
  7. If two children are trying to hurt each other, pick up the recipient of the harm, and move him/her away from the hurtful child.  If you need to go back and move the hurter, move them far away from the peer group, without words or attention outside of telling them you are going to pick them up now, then go back to comforting the recipient of harm.
  8. Hands on learning. If a child won’t listen to a verbal instruction, even with a gestural prompt like tapping the object they should touch, and they still won’t follow through, it is okay to take their hand and put it on whatever it needs to be touching.  For example, you say “turn off the water”, you tapped the sink handle, and they still don’t listen, take their hand and put it on top of the sink handle.  If you say “push down your pants”, and they won’t, even after you tapped the waistband, you can take their hands and tuck their little thumbs gently into the waistband and repeat your instruction.  Just be gentle.   We help people by… actually helping them start to do it themselves.

8. Hand-over-hand muscle facilitation. Sometimes young children lack the muscle strength or coordination to be successful in what you are asking.  So I will do gentle but effective  “hand over hand” muscle facilitation to help them get started.  You don’t need to be afraid of touch as a helpful learning modality.  Some learning always happens in tandem (they won’t let people skydive alone for the first time, for example), and kinetic learning can be especially difficult to learn through visualization alone.  Think of what it’s like trying to learn the physical activities you have mastered as an adult.  Chances are, someone used touch at some point when you just weren’t getting it from words and visual learning.

For example, if I say “hold on tight”, because they are barely grasping a vase that is about to fall, I’m sorry but we don’t have a million glass vases to break.  So before I resort to letting that glass fall and shatter, I will use my hand and close their hand more tightly around the object.  Full disclosure– when it comes to natural consequence, I would love to let the natural consequence unfold and let that vase spill/ drop and shatter, but that would mean we’re sweeping up broken glass and mopping all day long, which is just not realistic in my some-teen child toddler Montessori program.  The children  need to learn how to hold on tightly enough.  And if they don’t know what that means yet, I would rather help them feel it using a little bit of facilitation.    Or if I want them to pull open an apron string by reaching back behind themselves to feel for the string, they need some physical guidance at first.  I’m not afraid to help them just because the help involves touch.

Other times, a child just won’t listen, and gestural tapping didn’t work, and hands-on initiation didn’t work.  So I will, for example, put their hand back on the sink handle and use hand-over-hand to make their hand turn off the water.

9. The only time adults should ever be holding children around the ribcage is if the child is about to be picked up (how to pick up a child is explained below).  

10.  The “forklift” arms/hands to support a collapsing child.   If I see that a child is about to collapse, I will use my fingers-together, “neutral wrist” angled hand to support a falling child under the armpits, similar to a forklift (put your hands by your own side, then raise your arms out to shoulder level.  This is a neutral wrist/hand angle).  This way, if the child continues to go down, I can guide them down to the ground safely   without being dragged down with them, head-first, as I might if I was holding onto their ribcage.  I’m also taking care not to hurt myself if the child suddenly jerks to one side in a meltdown.  My arms are more free to move left or right with the force, or I can just step back, pull my hands out, and let them flail because I’m not holding onto their body.  Often times (most of the time, for me), the child will feel the support and stand back up on their feet.  But if they still are determined to go down, the smart ones will just lift up their own arms and go down.  Fine by me.

11. If they start to bang their head against hard surfaces, you can either put your hand between their head and the surface it’s about to hit, or it’s time to pick them up and move their body to a soft surface where they can get their tantrum on, without cracking their head open.


  1. say “I’m going to pick you up now”.
  2. The Chair hold (seated position). One arm will support the child across the front of the rib cage, under one armpit, and  your other arm will support and lift from under the child’s bottom.  The child should be facing the direction you will be walking, with their head/ back against your chest.  The child needs to see where they are being moved, because next time the goal is that they will walk to where you are going all by themselves.  It is easy to lower the child back down to their own feet when they are in the chair hold position, and if they ask to walk, they can walk the rest of the way by themselves.
  3. The cradle hold (supine). If the child tries to collapse backwards, and you still need to pick them up and move them, use a cradle hold.  Supporting their back and chest in one arm, and their legs in the other, lift the child as you would if they were sleeping.  This can transition into a chair hold when the child is more cooperative.

Hope this helps!!



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