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“He could do it yesterday, so I know he can do it!”

Have you heard (or thought) this before? It can be hard to figure out why a child patently refuses to do something he did just the day (or hour) before.

Ross Greene said it best: “Kids do well when they can.” If the child isn’t doing what you’ve asked, it’s time to ask, “Why can’t he do it?”  One reason might be that it is beyond his ability at that moment in time.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I attended a parent training session conducted by Adrienne Bashista of Families Affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. After describing the brain damage babies suffer when their mothers drink too much alcohol during pregnancy, Ms. Bashista talked about the importance of teaching children by meeting them where they are, rather than where you wish they were.

Performance is Variable

Think about something that is hard for your child right now.

graph showing how children's abilities are not constant, but are instead variable

Children have good days and bad days, just like the rest of us. Variability is a normal part of the human experience.

Perhaps she can’t get dressed independently. Or he is unable to sit still for more than five minutes. She never comes to the table when called. Or perhaps any work that involves writing leads to a meltdown.

What does your child’s performance look like from day to day? Is it always the same?

Probably not. Instead, performance probably looks like this graph.

Just because your child could do it yesterday doesn’t mean he can do it today. We all have good days and bad days. So does your child.

Your Child Can’t Always Meet Your High Expectations

I remember thinking that my young child should be able to do an art project without getting paint all over his face, hands, clothes, and the floor. My expectations were high!  But my son couldn’t meet my expectations. That paint was fun to play with! He could stick his fingers in it and swirl it around. And if his face itched? No worries – he just scratched it with his paint-covered fingers. Oh, and was he supposed to wear a smock while painting? Too late for that! And how in the world did that paint get all over the floor?

graph showing how you can adjust your demands to match your child's abilities

Accommodation is when you adjust your demands so they more closely match your child’s abilities.

My son was having a great time painting, and there was paint everywhere. At first, I was really upset because I thought he should be able to paint without getting paint all over everything. But I realized that I was expecting too much of my son, and I needed to adjust my expectations so I could meet him where he was. I got him a smock. We used water-soluble paints. We spread newspaper on the porch, and I only let him paint outside. I adjusted my expectations and the environment so that they more reasonably matched his abilities.

The graph above is the same as the previous one, but it shows my demands (expectations) as the red line. The left side of the figure shows what it looked like when my expectations were much higher than what my son was able to do. Once I adjusted my expectations and adapted the environment, my demands were more in line with my son’s abilities. This adjustment is the essence of accommodation.

Expecting Much More Than Your Child Can Handle is Frustrating

Think about a time when you expected more of your child than he or she could reasonably handle. We all do it – it’s part of parenting. It is even healthy because it pushes our children to learn new things. If we never had expectations that were beyond our children’s current abilities, we wouldn’t teach them anything.

But there’s a balance to it. In my experience, I’m at my absolute worst as a parent when my expectations are far beyond my kids’ abilities. Sometimes my unrealistic thoughts lead me to make unrealistic demands.

I remember one time I took my son to see a live performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He’d been to an orchestra concert only once before, and had to leave because it was too loud. Why I thought he would enjoy Stravinsky is beyond me. I took him, and he was having a really hard time – wiggling in his seat, trying to stay awake. Eventually he ended up crawling under his seat and curling up into a little ball.

I was so frustrated.

Graph showing that frustration comes when parental expectations exceed the child's abilities

When you expect more than your child can handle, it’s easy for both of you to get frustrated. By adjusting your expectations to match your child’s abilities, it’s easier for everyone.

Looking back, I have to wonder, “What was I thinking?” My son couldn’t sit still when watching a highly engaging movie. And he didn’t know the music. Not to mention that there are a lot of people who don’t like Stravinsky; I could have picked something a little more accessible.

Later that year, my husband took him to see the National Symphony Orchestra play the music for Final Fantasy. My son loved it. It helped that the concert was outdoors, and so he could get up and run around if he wanted to. My husband didn’t make unreasonable demands of my son, and they both had a wonderful time.

When the adult demands more of the child than the child is capable of, both child and parent get frustrated. Meeting your kids where they helps everyone feel calmer.

Teaching Involves Providing Just the Right Amount of Challenge

While it’s important to accommodate, it’s also important to teach your child. To do that effectively, though, you have to meet your children where they are, and then push them a little bit.

The figure below shows how a child might learn a new skill. The adult has expectations that are a bit beyond the child’s current ability, but the expectations aren’t too high, so the child doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

graph showing how you can teach when you expect just a little more than your child is capable of

By expecting just a little more, you can gently push your child to learn without scaring them. The challenge is in figuring how much you can push so your child feels it is safe (and even fun) to try.

I like to use the example of teaching a child how to put on her socks. It seems so simple. “Put on your socks.” But putting on your socks is actually a really complicated process.  (Here’s a wonderful Guide To Putting on Socks (pdf) that lays it out, step by step with pictures.)

  1. Hold the sock with the heel on the bottom. Put your thumbs on the inside and your fingers on the outside of the sock.
  2. Pull the sock over your toes. Make sure to line the toes up, and make sure the heel will go over the heel, and not off to the side.
  3. Pull the sock over your heel, lining up the heel of the sock with the heel of your foot.
  4. Pull the sock over your ankle.

You might teach this skill by doing steps 1-3, and having the child do the last step. Once they have mastered pulling the sock over their ankles, you can do steps 1 and 2, and have them do steps 3 and 4. Continue backing off your support one step at a time until they can put on their socks independently. (This is a technique called backward chaining.)

By providing just the right amount of challenge, your child can learn. The tricky part is figuring out how much challenge is just right. The only way to figure that out is by trial and error.

Don’t worry about setbacks. Remember – performance is variable, and it takes time to learn a new skill. By patiently meeting your child exactly where he or she is at that moment in time, you can teach almost anything.

Do you need help with your child? Sarah Wayland can help you figure out how to support your child via classes, Special Needs Care Navigation services, Parent Coaching, or as your certified Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) consultant.

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