What comes to mind when you think of the word “toddler?”

“Wiggle, chase, jump, go, ZOOM!”

Certainly not “sit” or “still.”

But as natural (and super cute) as these boisterous behaviors are the majority of the time, there comes a time when a toddler really must sit still and listen. Maybe you want to teach your kiddo to sit in church with the family? What about those dreaded doctor’s office waiting rooms? The challenge is in teaching toddlers to sit still screen-free. No electronics needed to distract here. We’re going all or nothing, straight to the heart of this issue. We’re teaching good old-fashioned self-control.

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So it all started in story time at our library last week. My son was a bit fidgety, but was contentedly listening to the librarian read, when all of a sudden he heard a train in the distance. That’s the moment it all fell apart. “Choo Choo train?” he exclaimed at the top of his lungs. I picked him up and stepped away from the group, quietly explaining that yes, there was a train, but no, we aren’t going to see it right now since it’s story time. We went to sit again but alas, the tide had already turned. As soon and I sat down he hopped up and started to roam the room again. I gave him the look and whispered in my best “I mean business” voice “Sit. Down. Now.”

Up until this point I would have considered his behavior childish irresponsibility. That’s when my ordinarily sweet little son, not quite two years old, looked me in the eye. He smiled, crouched down into a runners stance, gave me one last glance, and took off running. This was pure defiance. There he was in all his boyhood recklessness, while the other moms looked on in amusement. Needless to say, we left story time early and my little guy met with some consequences at home. How could I ever go back to story time? Were we doomed to forgo the joys of our favorite library forever?

Yikes. Not a shining moment in my intentional parenting journey.

Enter my dad. He’s decidedly one of the wisest people I know. As my son and I struggled in the door back at home I got a sweet and perfectly timed text from my daddy. “Julie, you’re a great parent and you are equipped to do the job.” Yes! That was the perfect word of encouragement for me. With my wits back about me and my parenting backbone firmly in place, I made a plan. I knew that it was time to become proactive instead of reactive.

RELATED: Click here to enroll in a FREE webinar: How to get kids to listen without nagging, reminding, or yelling. Don’t miss a chance to join parenting expert Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions for a powerful, FUN, interactive, answer-filled hour of tools you can start using IMMEDIATELY in your home.

So, what’s my action plan? 

My son is generally a sweet and goofy kid. I love him from top to bottom. Our problem was with a specific behavior. I needed to teach my toddler to sit still and listen: for story time, church, and beyond. It’s a skill worth having. And for a two year old boy, it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught. Intentionally. 

Want to learn how we handle toddler chores? Read my secrets here.

Here’s what I’m doing to teach my toddler how to sit still and listen.

What you’ll need:

  • 2-3 Books – choose their absolute favorites to encourage the maximum attention span! (Check out our favorites here and here.)
  • Small Pillow 
  • Small Fidget Toy (like this or this.)
  • One small to medium sized toddler, well fed and well rested. Ha! (Psst…a daily schedule helps us with this! Click that link to read about our daily routine.)
  • You! (Also well fed and well rested.)

Step 1: Set the Stage

I start by announcing, “It’s story time! Time to sit and listen!” (Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher. You’re peppy. You’re enthusiastic. You’ve got this!) Then I pulled out his favorite book to draw his attention. I had him sit on the pillow in front of me. (I usually read with Little J in my lap, but for this specific purpose I want him to learn the self-control to sit still by himself. This is “story time” reading, not “cuddles with mama” reading.)

Step 2: Reading Time

Start with their favorite book first. If my son gets up, I stop reading and instruct him to sit and listen. I tell him “ears open, mouth closed, hands in your lap!” If he doesn’t comply, (which will happen) I state in a calm voice, “I can’t keep reading until you sit down.” Since it’s a book he really loves, this is usually a highly persuasive tactic.

When he gets fidgety, I give him a small toy to keep in his lap while he listens. This Tangle Jr. fidget toy is absolutely perfect for the job. It’s small and discreet. A toy like this will keep his hands busy so his mind can focus!

I was surprised how quickly he caught on, since my son is usually 100+ mph all day long. The first day we tried this practice, he listened to three books in a row without getting up! I think the key was choosing books he’s obsessed with. For us, they were all train and tractor books. Of course.

Struggling to get in a storytime groove? Be sure to get in on my FREE email course: 7 Days to Smarter Storytime. I’ll teach you how to rock read aloud time like a PRO. I promise storytime with your kids will quickly become one of your most favorite times of the day. Besides nap time, of course. Nothing beats nap time 😉

Step 3: Encourage and repeat!

I praise my son during the whole process, talking specifically about what he’s doing that I love. “I love how you’re keeping your toy in your lap so quietly. What a great job of listening you’re doing!” I’ll repeat this every day until I feel like he grasps the concept. My goal is for 30 minutes of still listening time, to mimic our library story time setting as much as possible. Practice makes progress!

So, that’s my action plan. I can already tell a difference in how my son responds to directions at home. We’re still working on story time at the library, but I know if I stay consistent we’ll eventually see success. As with anything toddler related, I expect setbacks and frustration along the way. All that I needed was to shift my parenting focus! Proactive beats reactive every time. You are equipped to do the job.

I can’t wait for my son to put what he’s learned into practice. Story time here we come!

If you enjoyed this post, I know you’ll love reading about how we do (super-relaxed) homeschool preschool. See how we get lots of learning done with little stress!

Update: Fast-forward about 5 months after I wrote this post: My little dude is totally rocking story time! We finally found our rhythm. His behavior, attention-span, and self-control are much improved. I’m SO thankful that I put this plan into action when my son was a younger toddler. This skill of sitting still is proving to be invaluable now that we are in the “testing two’s stage.” Don’t delay, mamas!

Hey, are you looking for short and sweet ways to connect to your kids and turn a bad day around? Check out this post about how to make the most of the small moments of motherhood, plus grab a freebie cheat sheet with ideas to stick on your fridge!

Are you at the end of your rope with your active toddler? Teaching your kids to sit still and listen is such a valuable skill, especially for church, the library, and anywhere where running around is not an option. Boy, did I learn this the hard way! Let me show you how I finally taught my toddler how to sit still and quiet!