This morning Otto was sitting on the floor trying to put his pants on. He kept on pushing both of his legs into the one pant leg. Then he would kick and scream and throw himself on the floor and it would start all over again. I sat down next to him, trying to work out how to best to help him. I held out the second pant leg and tried to guide his leg into it. But Otto didn't want the help and he started kicking me. Oh, it's such a vicious circle, how to help someone that doesn't want to be helped?
We weren't making any progress. So I stayed with Otto and gave him time.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait some more.
Otto got really worked up, but he made it. He eventually got one leg in each pant leg, he stood up, pulled his pants up as high as he could, and just walked off. He faces similar frustrations putting on his shoes. It's because he knows he can do it, but he doesn't have the skill to do it easily or every time. If he didn't get his leg through and still wouldn't accept my help, I probably would have allowed him to go pantless while we were at home.
Later in the day, Otto walked up to me asking for help. He'd taken his top off and put a new one on, but he only got his head through the top, he knew he wasn't able to get his arms in so he asked for and accepted the help.
We need to recognise that the struggle is an essential part of the learning process. Helping the child when they don't need it is a barrier to their development.
"Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed." - Maria Montessori. I interpret this quote as don't interfere when the child doesn't need your help. Too often we step in too quickly and take the learning opportunity away from the child and disempower the child. Frustration can lead to increased focus, determination, skill development, problem-solving skills and, resiliance. I find that I am able to be more relaxed when we have time. Observing a very young child work through a frustration and can be really inspiring - yes they are capable, and often that look on their face when they finally 'get it' is priceless!! Here are a few things that I try:
- Observe and understand the cause of the frustration. Is there a way I can remove a barrier, what is the cause the frustration, can it be lessened?
- Stay and be patient. I want my child to know that I am available if needed. I remain calm even if the child continues to refuse help. On some occasions, I may step away for a moment to give the child some space but I quietly keep my eye on them.
- Respect the child's right to autonomy. As much as possible don't interfere. We must (as much as possible) respect the child's wishes and right to autonomy and ownership over their own body.
- Ask for permission. "Can I help you?", or tell the very young child what you are going to do before you do it and seek a positive reaction (permission) "I'm going to help you now/ I'm going to put your leg through here.".
- Offer the child a choice. This is my least preferred option and often is a last resort. Choices may help a child to move past the frustrations but doesn't deal with the frustration itself. "Shall we leave this and go play outside?".
The Montessori Toddler as always has some good tips: "The struggle is important. The child will enjoy mastering activities that are hard enough to provide a challenge, but not too difficult that they give up easily. We can wait until they are about to give up and, as before, we step in to give a small amount of assistance and then step back again." Simone suggests there are two ways we can offer help, by showing them "Would you like me to show you?", "Would you like a little help?" and to give verbal cues, for example: "Have you tried turning it?". Great advice, yes??
Otto needs to feel the frustration, he is learning to problem solve, he is experiencing and managing his emotions. It's ok to feel frustrated. It would be easier, in some ways, just to dress the child, to take the independence away, but what does that do to the formation of the child?