Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Importance of Letting Children Struggle

A few weeks ago, Henry and I were at a party, and a woman was talking to us. She noticed that Henry was looking at her bracelet, so she held it up for him to get a better look at it. Once she did that, Henry started reaching out to touch it. At the time, his reach and grasp were still pretty shaky, but you could tell he was working hard to learn how to reach toward something and grab it. He was so focused on getting his hand to that bracelet. It was an amazing thing to watch! I love seeing children work so hard at something that is challenging for them.

But suddenly, the woman grabbed Henry's hand and put it on her bracelet. Of course the woman had good intentions. She thought she was helping Henry reach his goal. However, Henry's goal wasn't really to reach the bracelet. His ultimate goal was to develop his coordination so that he could reach out and touch anything, anytime. She actually hindered Henry's progress toward that goal.

Of course this one-time incident is not a big deal, but what would happen if a child had this kind of experience over and over again for many years?

Looking at it from the opposite angle, what do children learn when they are given the freedom to struggle with challenges? Well, first of all, they develop themselves at a pace that is more in line with their potential. Because I let Henry practice reaching and grasping, he was able to develop those skills at his natural pace. Secondly, children who are allowed to struggle with challenges learn that they can work hard and overcome those challenges. Current motivation theory suggests that developing this kind of "growth mindset" is integral to children being motivated to take risks, make mistakes, and continue to grow.

In my nine years as a classroom teacher (ages 1st through 6th grade), I have seen what happens when adults step in to much to "support" children. Children don't believe that they are capable of overcoming challenges. They break down when faced when difficulty.

But learning that one can muster internal strength and persistence to overcome challenges is such an important lesson to learn! That's why I try to help Henry learn it day in and day out, even though he's a baby. For example, when he's on his movement mat reaching for a toy and he starts grunting and getting fussy, I don't automatically step in and give him the toy. I may move it a little closer if it's truly beyond his current ability to scoot and reach, but I let him spend time in the struggle. It's amazing to see what children can do if we stand back and give them time and space.

I think the two biggest hurdles to letting children struggle are awareness and time/patience. First, we have to observe our children and know what is within an appropriate range of struggle. We have to seek out opportunities for them to do work that is within this range. Secondly, we have to slow down and be patient as they struggle. It would be much more efficient to simply hand Henry his toy rather than let him reach for it, but efficiency is often the enemy when it comes to human development!

I'm definitely going to keep this concept at the forefront of my mind, especially as my days become busier and busier as I work toward opening a non-profit organization and applying for a charter to open a public Montessori school.

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stef said...

A lot of modern learning theory is derived by the idea that children are not empty vessels for elders to fill with knowledge.

But I agree that the art of learning when to step in and when to step back are important for eductators and parents.

Indeed one of the key competencies of the New Zealand curriculum is managing self. However I think it's important to have a counter balance such as relating to others as well as participating nad contributing.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. My husband and I try to be aware of this with our daughter. She's learning finger foods right now and I love watching her figure it all out. A lot of people forget that babies are as intelligent on the day they are born as they will ever be.

lisa said...

As crazy as parenting "theory" tends to drive me, I have to agree. Children are so capable, and today's culture tends to limit rather than stretch them---though I do use sippy cups. There's only so much milk/juice I'm willing to mop up!

An older book---if you can find the earlier editions---is The Mother's Almanac. Written, I think, in the 70's?

jan said...

While I think the author goes a little too far in drawing conclusions based on anecdotal "evidence", you might enjoy this article - some great food for thought!

Lexie said...

I couldn't agree more! My daughter turns six months old in less than a week, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if she crawls before then. While she is on the floor, I allow her a certain amount of frustration while she tries to get where she wants to go, and I'm so proud that she has learned not only how to army crawl to her destination, but that with hard work and patience, she can achieve anything she wants to.

Lauren said...

Hi Sara- I saw this article today, and thought of this post!

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