By Matt Emmons
Children are all on their own path. Whatever path they are on, or wherever they are in their journey, children do what they can with what they have. The knowledge or skills they have are acquired, and they have learned to use them in ways that work for them. As adults, we are quick to label or judge children. Sometimes we do not give children our trust that they are competent to master what may be difficult for them. It is essential to understand that no child is more significant than another. We must strive to view children devoid of judgment and comparison. They deserve to be seen as an individual who is capable of achieving great things. Something difficult for one child may be effortless for another. Putting on a t-shirt, or a sock, may be one of the hardest tasks to accomplish, and that is okay. Great value needs to be placed on where a particular child is at and be given the respect they deserve in understanding that it is difficult for them.
Having this belief that children are capable, first means giving them the opportunity to learn. They need to be given a chance to problem solve and to work at a task as this will help children develop a sense of confidence and self-worth if a problem or task is challenging to a child, that is okay; it is okay for children to struggle. The idea of “growthful” struggle can be hard to so-called “wrap our heads around” as it can, in turn, not be easy to see a child struggle.
Through this struggle, however, is where the growth comes. It is where children then feel a sense of belief in themselves or the confidence to then carry out another task.
I recently had one of the most significant and moving interactions I have ever had with a child since I first started working with children nine years ago. This interaction revolved around supporting the child in their self-help skills. More specifically, they were working on changing their clothes. As with all children, I knew that when given the time and space and the proper support and encouragement, this child could accomplish this task in their own way. The interaction came along with many expressions of “no” and “I can’t,” as well as some tears. The first step was knowing this child, what they were working on, and what they were capable of. I used that knowledge in how to support the child and how far to let them struggle; making sure that it was still a growthful struggle. There were times where I put the responsibility on the child to take off certain parts of the clothes and times where I got them started in taking off a piece of clothing. Again, this came with some push back from the child in saying that they could not do it or that they wanted me to do it for them. It came with some tears and breaks where the child had to take a moment to think of solutions to their problem and work up the courage to do what was next.
When the child made it halfway through, they walked over to me crying, stood next to me, and put their head on my shoulder. As I listened to their feelings and gave them encouragement, they were then ready to start putting on their new clothes. Again, this part came with sometimes saying that they couldn’t, times of taking breaks, but many times of perseverance. The child did not give up. They knew that I was there to support, encourage, and believe that they could. As the child got their last shoe on, they released what seemed like a bag of emotions and started crying again. I put out my arms, and they walked straight to me and sat in my lap. At first, I let the moment stay silent. Then I proceeded to say, “that was really hard, and you did it. You wanted me to do it for you and look; you did it yourself. You can do it. You can do hard things. You worked through it and didn’t give up.”
Yes, the child was crying. However, not out of being sad. That was a hard thing for them to do and a challenging experience. In the end, I was with that child for forty-five minutes helping them. It felt as though I was a passenger along with them on this journey of getting changed with new clothes. Sure, I could have just done it for them and then be done in five minutes. I needed to ask myself the question, how is that supporting this child by doing it for them? It was essential for the interaction to have a balance of encouraging him to do some of it on his own, but not leaving him alone. There were times where I had to start a part of the task so he could finish. There were times where I had to reassure the child that they can do it; that I have seen them do it before.
Struggle does not have to be seen as negative. It should be seen as a meaningful learning experience for children. The way I listened to feelings, guided, encouraged, and showed support; the child was able to see me as someone who was there along with him in this challenge. As opposed to someone who did not value them or want to take the time to believe in them. At no point was the child angry or frustrated with me. The emotions came from a place of the task being hard; it was challenging for them; it was one of the hardest things they have ever done.
Contrary to what many believe, children are a lot more capable than we think. When given the opportunity, they can and will astonish. They can rise to the occasion. They can learn.