Respectful Ways to Help Children

As parents, caregivers and mentors, our role is to provide support in a respectful manner, allowing children to tackle challenges on their own terms. For sure, it’s often easier to do things ourselves, than to allow our enthusiastic, but unskilled, two-year-old to do it. But should we? When do we help, and when do we encourage persistence? What is the best way to help children? What’s so bad about helping, anyway?

There’s absolutely no doubt that our children are hard-wired to learn, to practice skills and to tirelessly put effort in to gaining independence. As infants grow into toddlers, they still haven’t yet lost that urge, their irrepressible will, to do things for themselves. But at this age, many of the things they want to do are often still a bit too tricky, and so it is natural for us to want to help them (or to just get it done by ourselves!).

On the other hand, our helping may actually prevent children from learning. Sounds dramatic, however, when children are frequently offered help, or when there is an assumption present that a task cannot be accomplished by a child, then the child is denied the process of trial and error, gaining experience in problem-solving, developing determination, physical skills and learning how to embrace challenges.

Encouraging independence in children isn’t about letting children fend for themselves, or making children do hard jobs to learn skills. Independence is tied up in our sense of self-worth, and an ability to see ourselves as capable beings. This, of course, develops through relationships based on warmth, trust, respect and holding the vision of children as successful learners. How much do you do for your child, that they could be doing by themselves, or helping you with? Getting dressed? Opening lunch boxes? Carrying bags? Food preparation? How do we strike a balance between fostering independence and supporting children when they need help?

What’s our role in fostering independence?

Understanding our role in fostering independence is essential. While our hearts yearn to help, our assistance might inadvertently hinder their learning process. Providing the space for trial and error, problem-solving, and persistence is crucial for their holistic development. This is one of the reasons we view ourselves as ‘mentors’ rather than ‘educators’.

Mentors explore ways to develop relationships with children, to support children to be self-motivated in their learning. Mentors hold the vision that children are born into this world with a drive to learn and grow, and support them in respectful ways to see this in themselves too. We try to find ways to support children’s expression of independence, and to teach the skills involved so that doing tricky tasks is a shared learning experience. Sometimes ‘helping’ might mean ‘involving’ children in the task, doing little bits for themselves along the way while you work together until they become competent to do it alone.

So, in this way, at Birdwings Forest School, we do have one-year-old children who can dress themselves, two year olds who can use knives to prepare fruit for a shared morning tea, three-year-olds who can thread needles and sew blanket stitch, and four-year-olds who can pack their lunches, fold a tarpaulin and plan the best way to climb up and down a dry waterfall! We take time to practice new skills, encourage trying new experiences, companion children through big feelings if they arise, and celebrate satisfying achievements.

We build relationships with each other so children know we trust them to try, and they try because they trust us to help when it’s needed. Building confidence đź’Ş We are going to let you in on how we do it:

1. Minimise Instructions

Less is often more when it comes to verbal communication. While it’s tempting to explain every detail, try to avoid issuing instructions and over-explaining. When children are feeling frustrated or reluctant we might try to cajole, convince and reason with children to get it done. Children so often are told what they need to do throughout the day, particularly through busy moments. Even just telling children an instruction can feel like an order and send children into an anxious state. This isn’t very helpful. Instead of giving instructions we try to use declarative language instead, which is the use of statements that provoke children’s thoughts about the task, so that they can activate their own problem-solving and questions around the task at hand. For example instead of “Put your shoes on”, we might say, “You need to wear your shoes to play outside. Let’s find them.”

2. Demonstrating the skill: “Let’s Do It Together”

Children often look to us for guidance, especially when confronted with a tricky task. Focus on doing the task together, in manageable steps. Model each step deliberately and allow time to process information and recall skills. Waiting between steps acknowledges children’s need for cognitive processing and prevents overwhelming them with information.

The key word is “let’s”, which implies that we will be together while the task is getting done. We like to demonstrate the skills with our own bodies and invite children to join in with “let’s do it together”. This shared experience not only shows how the task could be done, but also demonstrates that learning is a collaborative journey.

Copying is a natural part of learning, and children are natural mimics. Allow children to imitate your actions and give them room for mistakes. Mistakes are valuable learning opportunities and mean we can give focus on how to refine our skills when we practice. Mistakes can also be funny! Have a giggle about it together, if you can. Remember, acquiring new abilities takes repetition, patience and relationships.

3. Journeying Through Challenges

When tasks remain tricky, we can reinforce problem-solving skills. We can say, “It’s not working yet! Let’s try it another way. What could we do?”. Patiently allow time for children to figure things out. This pause fosters cognitive processing, memory retrieval, and the development of crucial physical skills.

If its still really tricky, we can consider providing a gentle physical support. We can can guide their hands, gently and positively doing the job together. We still don’t need to say much! Offering instructions at a point where children are beginning to feel frustrated isn’t really going to help. Let’s instead rely on our relationship, the trust we are building together and keep the promise that we can support children to learn.

4. Celebrating Effort Over Results

Completion of a task should not be our sole focus, although it does feel good for a children to have accomplished something tricky. It’s tempting to say “good job!” or “well done!”, but we do try to avoid this (yes, it still slips out now and then), because praising the finished task does little to support real growth. Instead, let’s acknowledge their effort by describing the hard work they put in, reflect on their attempts, describe their strategies, and share in their triumph over challenges: “That was tricky! You thought about it and tried a few ideas. And it worked! You must feel proud about finding your own way!”

Relationships Are Key

Ultimately, our goal is to guide children toward true independence in developmentally appropriate ways. Encouraging children to work slowly, figure things out, and rely on their problem-solving abilities reinforces the trust they have in their own capabilities. This reciprocal trust between child and caregiver is essential for their growth journey.

At times, our well-intentioned actions might inadvertently hinder a child’s learning. By showing them how to tackle tasks, we empower them with the tools they need. Guiding them through tasks without doing it for them instills the confidence to explore their capabilities.

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