“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
- Hold the sock with the heel on the bottom. Put your thumbs on the inside and your fingers on the outside of the sock.
- 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.
- Pull the sock over your heel, lining up the heel of the sock with the heel of your foot.
- 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.
Vygotsky is definitely one of my favorite theorists teaching us about scaffolding and private speech. I find myself wishing his life had not been so short as he was clearly brilliant. On a personal note it seems to be a whole new skill to use these concepts with my own child. Maybe I need some scaffolding.
I love Vygotsky, and agree that he was brilliant. His work has definitely shaped my thinking! As to *your* learning curve, remember that you have good and bad days too! Learning any new skill definitely takes practice…. so be compassionate with yourself while you learn.
Sarah, what a wonderful post, and very timely. I appreciate the accessible way you wrote this – clear, non-punishing, and accessible. It is just as much a message about kids abilities as it is about parenting. I think a lot of us parents “know” this intuitively, but just like kids, we too have good days and bad days. The reminder to take a step back and work at their level is needed every once in a while. Thank you for being a wonderful resource coming from both science and personal experience.
Thank you so much, Michelle! I’m glad the post was helpful. It can be really hard to remember that we all have good and bad days. I see parents being hard on themselves when they do things that they know aren’t helpful – making mistakes like we all do. We can all use a little compassion – kids and parents alike.
From Roswitha Firth (on my Facebook page):
Thank you, Sarah Wayland, for posting this article. I needed this reminder.
On my first reading several years ago, although I read the bit about socks, the significance of the child completing the last step(s) escaped me. Of course it made sense because the last step is the easiest but I completely blew over the emotional significance for the child – that “I can DO it!” feeling.
I’ve missed opportunities with James and Andrew when building Lego sets. For several years they were given lots of Lego sets slightly above their ability level. Nothing wrong with that. I was pretty good at helping a little and giving them steps they could do, or showing them where something went and letting them do the doing. Where I went wrong was in not setting the situation up differently, and sometimes the result was that they *didn’t* have that moment of “I can DO it!”
Some of those kits were hard. Hard for adults (hard for me, who practically made a full time job out of building Legos when I was a kid).
[I blame my eyesight. Those instructions are awful for distinguishing smoke, gray, and black in a 3D diagram in two dimensions. And those colors are 93.5% of any Star Wars Lego kit.]
Those harder kits took a long time to put together. Heck, it took a long time to lay out all the pieces grouped by like items. By the time all the pieces were laid out – even if I made a game out of it – James was antsy and Andrew had already moved on to play with something else. So James would start putting it together with my help, but after 10 or 20 minutes he would be done. Understandably. He was 4, then 5. He would want me to finish so he could play with it. Again, understandably. So I would hurry up and rush the last 17 pages, doing some steps for him when he was tilting toward a meltdown and showing him where pieces went in the moments I thought we could get through.
[If you’re a parent of a pre-elementary child, you probably know that the space between the meltdown tipping point and the point immediately preceding it is inversely proportional to time/(food — sleep). Or something. I was not a math major.]
What I missed was an opportunity to give James and Andrew that sense of accomplishment, that “I can DO it!”, that is a building block for attempting something new. And kids need a LOT of these opportunities. I didn’t know about “backward chaining.” So sometimes we all got stuck in frustration.
Next time we try something new that is hard, I will use this method to teach them in the hopes that “I can DO it!” more often turns into “I want to try.”
Next up: tying shoelaces.
Just as true today as it was when you first wrote this!