Question: I have recently started babysitting two girls from my neighborhood; their ages are 2 and 4. I also have a 2 and 4 year old of my own. The two girls that I babysit are extremely behind. They have none of the basic knowledge that kids their age should. I have never met a child as slow as these two. I want to help them, but after two months, they’ve made no progress. They seem to be getting worse. How do I begin to teach these children basic knowledge?

Adele Brodkin: It is very generous of you to want to encourage these children in their growth and development which is above and beyond the usual expectations for baby sitting. My suggestion is that instead of trying to teach them in an academic style, involve them in every day chores, talk to them about what you are planning, maybe raise easy questions.  For example, if you go to the post office and they come along, you can show, particularly the older child, that you are buying stamps to put on letters.  Then later or the next day when your mail comes, you can show them a letter sent to you with a stamp on it. You can point out a postal truck or a mailperson delivering the mail and mention that (s)he gets that mail from the post office to bring to people’s mailboxes.

Similarly, if you are shopping for groceries and/or cooking, talk about what you plan to make for lunch or dinner and how you pick out good fruit or vegetables, how you wash them before serving, etc.

When you are helping them on with their jackets, show them some “tricks” about how to hold their arms, point out the zipper and how it works. But don’t expect either of them to be ready to do the zippering on their own.

Try to make all these activities casual and fun and if either or both pays little attention, move right along to another chore without commenting on their performance with the last.  All of these examples, and many other every day chores that allow you to engage them in conversation are important readiness activities of later more formal learning.

Incidentally, be sure you have simple age appropriate toys, especially toys that allow free play and make believe.  Growing the imagination is especially important at their ages.

For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.