Are you living with a tiny person who is exploring a colorful vocabulary? Do you teach or interact with tiny people who like to explore using words that might make the adults around them cringe?

Recently I have begun to experience the three-year-old children in my classroom utilizing “four-letter” and “potty talk” words in their play and socializing. You may know this common scene: the children are gathered around the sensory tub playing with paint when suddenly on child says, “oh sh*t” as they drop their paint brush causing some paint to spill. Then another child then uses the same phrase minutes later, followed by another, and another. Or how about this common scene? The children are gathered around the lunch table when one child says “poop” or “fart” and giggles, which sends this potty-talking spiral throughout the classroom. Some adults would say that this behavior and language is socially unacceptable, while others would say, “kids will be kids” and laugh it off or ignore it. If you stand in either place, know this blog isn’t designed to condone or admonish this behavior, but rather to shed light on the development that I observe occurring within this behavior.

Ever wondered what a teacher means when they say they spend time “observing” your child’s behavior to gather information? Well, here’s a glimpse into how I unpack these seemingly simple interactions into evidence of developmental milestones.

I observe the interaction, meaning I closely watch the child’s language, physical movement, social interactions, and emotions; and while doing so, I take notes. I then make connections to the learning and interactions I am seeing occur at other times and follow that up with a glance at a list of age-specific developmental guidelines. According to the Washington State Early Learning and Development Guidelines, at three years old a child should display the following (among other skills): show interest in their peers, copy adults and playmates, learn new vocabulary words and figure out how to use them in context, become engrossed in an activity and ignore distractions briefly, participate in conversations, and show a wide range of emotion.

In this brief moment that is highlighting the social learning of one child teaching another child a new word based purely upon social interaction, all of the above Developmental Guidelines are displayed. Look at the list below for a further unpacking of each.

  • Show interest in their peers, copy adults and playmates, participate in conversations: These can be easily seen through the fact that the children were being social and interacting with their peers. They also likely heard the words being used by another adult or child initially and are testing them. This testing can be for a variety of reasons, such as: trying to figure out their own sense of humor and make others laugh, getting attention from adults around them, trying out a word they have heard and want to learn the meaning of, or simply mimicking the person they heard use this word. Regardless of each child’s specific reason for using four-letter-words, it should be noted that they are meeting developmental milestones in a variety of socially-motivated ways.
  • Learn new vocabulary words and figure out how to use them in context: It may seem as though children either know a word’s meaning or they don’t, which would place the word in one of two categories – “known” or “unknown.” This isn’t the case. According to research on language acquisition, there are three levels of word knowledge: unknown, acquainted, or established.
  • Become engrossed in an activity and ignore distractions briefly: What parent or educator doesn’t want their preschool-aged children to focus more deeply on the activity at hand? When children get into the place of repeatedly using “potty words” and laughing, I have seen this interaction evolve to include more children and display levels of engagement that teachers hope for during the school day. Placing the annoyance that some (myself included) may feel during these interactions aside, it’s amazing that the children are able to find a shared sense of humor, camaraderie, and keep these interactions long lasting. These moments of deep engagement around potty words remind me that I can find a way to draw that engagement out at other times…
  • Show a wide range of emotion: The intonation and tone that children use in these moments of “four-letter-word” play is often dripping in emotion. Angry scowls and tones or sly smiles preceding giggles, these moments can be a view into a child’s emotional development. Are they trying on lots of angry emotions in their play? Perhaps they are curious about the emotion they are exploring. One way to dive into these emotions is through children’s literature, and another is through engaged support of their dramatic play. In our classroom, we leap for joy when big emotions come to the surface as we share stories or observe children’s play, and we can help them navigate what these emotions mean and how to use them appropriately.

Social learning through observing and then trying out the behavior is typical of young children. It occurs in many contexts and perhaps you now have a new framework to use when thinking about children’s behavior that may not align with your expectations. Jumping into my developmental lens as an educator is what has enabled me to set my initial reactions aside, and look with curiosity for the reasons and motivations behind the child’s behavior. Perhaps you will be willing to respond to children in a different way the next time they yell “oh sh*t” or talk about their potty and body functions loudly in the grocery store, at home, or at school.

Chauntae is an educator with 2- to 3-year-olds at Hilltop Children’s Center, where she has worked since 2017.

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