Tyler is 20 months old and instead of playing with his toys or using his spoon to feed himself, he quickly throws them as soon as he picks them up. Tyler’s parents tell you that it’s really hard to manage during playdates or when they go out to eat. Tyler also rarely stays still to play, preferring to walk and climb on anything within reach. They wonder why he doesn’t play with his toys like other children at his playgroup?
Why is Tyler Throwing?
Did you think, well, he’s 20 months old so he’s naturally busy. Sure, that’s true, but most 20 month olds will sit and play to entertain themselves for a minute or two. A few other possible reasons for Tyler’s throwing might be:
Cognitive Delay – Tyler may be showing that he’s “stuck” at a cause and effect level of understanding. He may not understand how to play with his toys in a more purposeful way, only understanding them as separate pieces rather than as pieces that go together, such as with shapes and a shape sorter, cars and a toy garage, or his spoon and food in his bowl.
Fine Motor Planning Difficulty – Tyler might be having difficulty with planning the motor movements needed to complete a task. If he’s struggling to get his body to cooperate for activities such as turning pages in a book, manipulating switches on a pop-up toy, or combining toys to stack, fit together or scribble, then he might just throw the pieces instead. Motor planning comes naturally to most children as they learn how to intentionally manipulate things in their environment. Other children, like Tyler, need assistance with helping their bodies learn how to plan and execute tasks that require coordination.
Late Walker – Maybe Tyler is a late walker so he’s just really into exploring and testing out his body right now. Sometimes, late walkers seem so thrilled with walking that they abandon other activities in favor of moving and climbing for a while. However, if Tyler has been walking for a while, then that thrill of newfound mobility should have decreased by now.
How Can You Help Tyler Move Beyond Throwing?
Helping Tyler slow down, attend to and practice activities that expand his understanding and coordination should decrease his throwing because he’ll learn other ways to entertain himself. Of course, using a “no throwing” reminder is a good idea, but I’d bet that his parents have been saying that for a while. Rather than treating his throwing as a discipline issue, let’s consider some intervention strategies to teach him what TO DO, rather than focusing on what not to do:
Ask his parents for their insights first – Why do they think he throws? What they would like him to do instead? What have they already tried? Their insights are invaluable to developing useful strategies.
Give his throwing a purpose – Tyler is just randomly winging his toys and other items. Help him transition to more purposeful activities by making throwing a purposeful game. Encourage his parents to help him toss his toys into a clean-up basket or toss balls back and forth. Help him use the objects he wants to throw for their intended purposes.
Use hand-over-hand guidance – Take Tyler’s hand or forearm and guide him through a more purposeful activity. If he’s trying to help his mom plant seeds in the garden, she can guide his hand to dig the hole in the dirt and place the seed. Make hand-over-hand guidance brief and always be alert to backing off as the child gains more control.
Teach the “give me” command – Anticipate Tyler’s throwing by holding out one hand and guiding his throwing arm with your other hand so that his “throw” lands in your hand. This is a great strategy to teach parents. You, or they, must be quick and consistent. Always pair this strategy with a command such as “give me the ___” so that Tyler learns the words to go with the activity.
Practice fine motor activities – Find a place where Tyler is less mobile, like his highchair or the bathtub, and engage him in more focused fine motor activities. At first, these activities might be very short, but over time Tyler will learn to attend and persist a little longer. Help him complete one more step of the activity each time before the activity ends, like coloring one more scribble, nesting one more plastic bowl to clean up after lunch, or opening one more door on his pop-up toy.
Praise purposeful activity – Celebrate when Tyler is focused and accomplishes a task. By purposefully using praise for what you want Tyler to do, it will help him learn the self-control he needs to move beyond throwing.
Coach his parents in how to use these strategies – Remember that you might be able to teach Tyler not to throw when you’re around, but if he throws when you aren’t in the home, no one is really benefiting. Parents can skillfully use any of these strategies and you can be the person to help them learn too.
With time and practice, Tyler will learn how to play in other ways. Once he is throwing less, and his family can manage playdates with less worry and go out to dinner without forks flying, you’ll know that the intervention was a success!
How do you judge when intervention is needed for throwing? What other strategies do you use to help children move past throwing?