Are we truly helping children when we do things for them? It depends on where the child is developmentally. According to Vygotsky, a prominent education theorist, children learn best when tasks aren’t too hard or too easy, known as the zone of proximal development (1978). The amount of help from adults and peers can be referred to as scaffolding (Wood et al. ,1976). Scaffolding refers to the assistance a person needs when learning a new task or concept. This assistance is removed when no longer needed. Being tuned into an individual child’s developmental readiness is a key factor for knowing when and how much scaffolding is needed for a particular skill.
It is important to focus on building a growth mindset through praise of effort, not achievement. Children will grow up and be able to put their shoes on by themselves. Our goal isn’t only to teach children how to accomplish the task, but to encourage them to develop a sense of perseverance. We do not praise children for putting their shoes on, we praise their effort.
Watching a child struggle to solve a problem on their own without interfering can be difficult to do. If you have been truly present with your child, and connected with them in a real way, it will be easier to let go and allow them to play by themselves or to work at mastering a task such as putting on their own socks. I know that I often want to swoop in and hand them that thing they are struggling to reach, or to switch their shoes so that they are on the right feet, but true learning comes from trial and error. That means they try, and sometimes, they fail. It is through the mistakes that children learn what to adjust for the next time. Because there will be a next time. That is when fostering perseverance pays off.
Here are some tips to promote perseverance:
- Allow children the time and opportunity to dress themselves.
- Let children solve puzzles and build block towers, train tracks, etc. all by themselves.
- Know your child and only assist when necessary and as little as possible. Don’t immediately do something for a child when you see them struggle.
- Allow children to drink out of regular cups and glasses. Sippy cups may avoid spills, but that is how children learn.
- Stay calm and patient. Not only does this model the behavior we want from our children, but it lets them know we have confidence in their abilities to master tasks.
Building self-confidence and endurance in early childhood is a foundation for happiness later in life. In order to develop these characteristics, children need time and space to practice doing things for themselves. Life is hectic, and we are often on deadlines and schedules, rushing from one place or activity to another. Whenever possible, calmly, patiently allow a child to struggle. Avoid getting emotional or impatient, and just observe. If necessary, offer advice or a hand in moving forward, but as much as possible, allow children the opportunity to accomplish their tasks on their own. In the end, they will be better off by having struggled and built up their perseverance.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.