Working Together: Help Children Learn to Cooperate

Teach your toddler the value and importance of cooperating with others

The ability to cooperate is an important piece of a well-balanced life. Working with others is essential to academic, social, and personal success, but it’s not a skill that comes easily to young children. Toddlers, in particular, are very self-centered – which is the natural result of having lived a life where their needs are anticipated and met by the adults around them.

Learning to consider others and balancing someone else’s needs against their own is a new concept to young children and requires development through patience and practice. Help your child learn to understand the value of accommodating others’ requests and encourage them to cooperate.

How to encourage cooperation

Before you begin to teach your child how to cooperate, it’s important to remember that cooperation is different from compliance. Sure, we’d all like our children to do as we say. However, the ability to participate in a joint effort is a skill that will offer more benefits throughout their life. Try to make working together with the focus as you teach your child about cooperation. The following tips and tricks will help with this effort.

Make sure they understand the “why” of your request

A large part of teaching cooperation is helping your child see the overall value in rules and requests, and how both of them can benefit everyone involved. “But why?” is a common refrain from toddlers because they’re trying to learn why the world works as it does. Give an explanation at the same time you give the request.

For instance, when you ask your child to pick up their toys, explain that when all the toys are out, it’s harder to find which ones they’re looking for, or remind them that if we don’t take care of our toys, they can get lost or broken. Once the toys are picked up, point out how nice the area feels once it’s free of clutter. They don’t have to like your reason – and they likely won’t – but explain the purpose behind your requests.

Offer suggestions or choices instead of commands

Toddlers often push boundaries to explore and establish their own independence. Help them feel as if they have more control over their days and life by offering choices or suggestions whenever possible.

As an example, if your child is routinely reluctant to bathe, ask if they’d like to take a bath or a shower, or if they would prefer to take a bath after breakfast or before dinner. Simply framing a question in a new way can evoke a different reaction. Suggestions also help inspire a feeling that you’re working together to make a decision, which is an integral part of the cooperation.

Do chores together and praise cooperation

Let’s face it – having your child assist with chores isn’t all that helpful when they’re young. However, it’s a great way for them to learn how to work with others. Assign simple tasks to your child, such as separating white clothes from the laundry pile, setting their place at the table, or using the feather duster on sturdy pieces of furniture.

Show them that you appreciate their efforts by letting them know how their actions have helped you. “You did such a good job dusting the furniture! Now I can vacuum without having to dust first. We’re doing such nice work making our home clean!” Remarks like this highlight and reinforce the benefits of working together.

Introduce opportunities to take turns

Learning to take turns is an important part of social development and can help your child get along with their peers. It’s also a good lesson in practicing patience. Even babies can begin to work on taking turns.

Between the ages of six to nine months, infants enjoy imitating the actions of their caregivers. Make a game of dropping blocks or toys in a bucket; you drop one and then hand them one to drop in. As your baby becomes a toddler, work on a puzzle together, or roll a ball back and forth. These simple actions help reinforce the concept of cooperative play.

Although cooperation doesn’t come naturally, it’s essential for living a well-adjusted life in a family, classroom, social group, or community. Help your young child understand the importance of cooperation by explaining why rules and requests are important, giving them the power to make choices, providing activities and tasks that require working together, and showing your appreciation for their cooperative efforts.

The VA Infant & Toddler Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.

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