All learning begins with a sense of trust and security. We cannot possibly ask children to learn something new if they do not feel safe or cared for. Connection must come first and through connection we learn about each other, and what we are ready to do. At Birdwings Forest School, we work closely with children through play, joyful moments, fun adventures and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. We are walking with them, learning with them and have established a trusting relationship, so they know we won’t ask them to do something they aren’t capable of.
We love to mentor children – and we are SO excited by children’s own efforts – and they are too! This is why we encourage children to do all the things by themselves, and we are committed to the time it takes to learn. This is also why we ask our mentors, families and other adults to be aware that when we do things for children, or take over when children are struggling a bit (or reluctant to participate) – then we are actually giving children the message: “I don’t think you can do this, and it’s easier if I do it for you, so you don’t need to try.”
When things are done for children, we rob them of the opportunity to try it themselves, to act on their natural inclination to experiment and copy others so they can learn important things. Mentors hold space for learning and know that if we step in too soon, we also rob children of their opportunity to develop resilience to failure and disappointment.
In this way children become passengers rather than participants, believing that they cannot do anything about things that they feel challenged with. We then have passive children who have learned they don’t need to make an effort and have lost the inner drive to embrace new experiences. Worse, from a young age we may have children who become are used to having things done TO them as well as for them.
Sounds pretty drastic – and it is! It is called “Learned Helplessness” and it may contribute to other bigger problems down the track when it comes to mindsets for learning at school, and even mental health, self protection and healthy relationships as adults.
Schools are now working through the phenomenon of a noticeable increase of children presenting with anxiety and depression. New elements of wellbeing, mindfulness, growth mindset and habits of mind are being added to the curriculum to support all children with their self confidence and self esteem. These are life skills that must be experienced rather than taught – and they require a very secure relationship with trusted mentors to learn over a long period of time. SO much work can be saved at this point if only we can begin early, right from infancy, in helping children embrace themselves as confident and capable learners.
It feels mean to make children do hard things. Of course it does! Nobody likes to see people feel uncomfortable or challenged. It’s normal to feel like a meanie, but there is a bigger picture here. Its BECAUSE we care so much about children that we ask adults step back and trust children to find their way with their own abilities.
Let’s remember to separate our feelings from theirs. Children process experiences and emotions in the moment and are more likely to express big feelings freely in a safe relationship! All the joy and all the fear and all the big feelings. Attachment theory suggests that because they feel safe with us, children might give us all they’ve got! Isn’t that wonderful?
We are journeying together in their learning through a vision of trust and confidence. When our confidence in them falters, so too does their confidence in themselves – and so to does our relationship. You might feel like a meanie when you ask them to show what awesome humans they are, but it is meaner not to provide this opportunity, don’t you think?
So, if we can’t do things for children, how do we help? We mentor them. We use humour and imagination. We do things WITH children. We work out which skills they need to get tricky things done, and support them through learning these skills. We model and allow children the chance to try, and also to feel disappointment or frustration. We share stories of our own experience.
It’s definitely the much harder road, but because we’ve worked on our connection, and they know we care, they do not feel abandoned. There still may be resistance, and possibly even tears, because learning is hard! We all cry when things are hard, no matter how old we are.
A good mentor will be a companion in this process, re-establishing trust, allowing feelings, separating their own feelings from the child’s experience. A good mentor will move through processes slowly, remind children they’ve got this, allow time to practice the skills they need, celebrating each little step forward until finally – YOU DID IT!
Trust children – small folk can do big things! There’s a general assumption that our small folk can’t do tricky things yet, because they are little, and maybe not ready. Any parent who has experienced the power and skill summoned by a toddler in a rage can be reassured they can definitely do hard (and incredible) things! But let’s not write off these skills as merely their a result of their random, Incredible-Hulk-like personalities. We can remind children (and ourselves) of their inner strength in the every day moments too.
Confidence flows from connection. We can work joyfully, positively and sensitively with our children in each moment: modelling, supporting, stepping back, repeat. It’s slow going, but worth it. Expecting children to do things for themselves is not simply a matter of saying “Do it”. It’s about working together to learn mastery in little ways. For example, putting on socks means learning how to use your thumbs and fingers to pull the sock up and over your heel (those tricky heels, always getting in the way!). That’s something we can talk about with children and do it together. Sitting close, their hands with with yours, talking quietly and positively and allowing time. It may sound something like this:
“You can do it, and I am here with you. I’ll show you again. Try it this way. Let’s do it together. Now you have a go. Look what you can do! That was tricky, wasn’t it? And you did it.”
We are helping without taking over. We are supporting while expecting them to make an effort for themselves. We are re-establishing trust by holding a safe space for fear and frustration. It’s such a thoroughly joyful and proud moment when a child has been practising something for so long (days, weeks, months!) and it finally comes together. Whether it’s learning to walk, putting on your own sock, opening your lunch box, packing your own lunch, or climbing up that steep hill, we see you!
Celebrate success! Children are excited when they can sense our pride in their efforts. All our actions and words express “We know you can do it, and we will help you by teaching you the skills you need to do it yourself. We know you worked hard to learn this and you should be so proud of yourself. We are proud of you too.” And when children realise they can teach others something they learned for themselves – well, our cup runs over.
What a team we make when we learn together.
To read more of our posts on risk-taking, resilience and learning for independence: