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Work and Work and Work Until You Get It

On the top half of the Circle of Security, one of the needs is “Help Me”. To be more accurate, it should actually be “Help me just enough so I think I did it on my own”. When a child is learning a new skill or trying something new, they must do it over and over again to learn just how it needs to be done. Caregivers can help by providing the scaffolding necessary for the child to learn the new skill “independently”.

Picture a child who is learning to crawl. She might spend hours just practicing moving from belly to hands and knees. She will do it repeatedly to find just the right technique that feels good to her body. Then, she will start rocking back and forth on her hands and knees. Sometimes it might be just a little and sometimes quite a bit. Her brain and body are synchronizing in this new movement. Too much this way and she loses balance. Too little that way and it won’t provide enough momentum. In these moments, she doesn’t need her caregiver to teach her how to crawl – she has the instincts which can provide that – but she may need a caregiver’s encouragement, a caregiver who creates a safe surrounding for movement and a caregiver who can help her work through any feelings like that may come up, such as delight or frustration.

Here is a story from a parent about how she helped her young son by helping him just enough so he did it on his own until she started to see his internal value of persistence.

“My husband and I really wanted to impress on our child the value of persistence because we both feel like we have to use that skill often as adults. We weren’t sure how to go about it. We knew we didn’t want it to seem like we were hitting him over the head with it, but we did want some kind of message given to him in his early childhood.

When our son was about 10 or 11 months, he was playing with some toys. It seemed like he was trying to get one smaller toy onto a larger toy a certain way. I watched him try over and over but it wasn’t working. He finally gave up and did something else. I didn’t say anything. A few minutes later, he went back to it and after a few attempts, he got it to do just what he wanted. He looked up at me with pure joy on his face. I smiled back at him and said, “hurray! You worked and worked and worked until you got it!” He grinned back at me and then did the same task over and over until it seemed like he was satisfied that he had done it enough.

I told my husband about it later and we realized that I had witnessed our son’s innate persistence. We didn’t need to create it in him – because it was already there – but we could scaffold it, encourage it and organize his feelings around it.

The next time we saw him try a new task, we observed and waited. When he moved on, one of us would say, “hmm…. You are taking a break from figuring it out”. When he finally figured something out, we would say, “you worked and worked and worked until you got it!” Usually, he would get a big smile and so would we.

As he got older, we added a few parts to how we talked about persistence. As a two year old, I might notice that he was trying to do a simple puzzle. I would hang out nearby to be present but not get in his space too much either. If he didn’t get it and stopped, I might say, “puzzles are tricky. Sometimes it helps to take a break or take a deep breath before you try again.” I didn’t expect him to understand or do anything differently, I was just scaffolding the experience for him for when he got older. When he finally got something, I might say, “you worked and worked and worked until you got it! You had to take a quick break but the you were able to figure it out!”

As a three year old, we expanded it a little more and he would participate in our help more. When he struggled, I could say, “wow! This is a tough one. Do you need a break or help or do you just want to keep trying to figure it out on your own?” He would tell me which option he wanted to choose and we would offer some organization of his feelings. I might say, “this can be frustrating, huh? It can be really good to take a break and come back to something later” or “boy! You look like you might be starting to feel impatient now! I would be happy to help for a little bit” or “my goodness! This is requiring some persistence from you! You really want to get this figured out”.

By four years old, we watched him doing this process for himself. Most of the time, he walked through the same steps we did with him, but on his own. We could hear him talking to himself and saying things like, “whew! This is a tough one! I better take a breath and try again later.” It was cute to hear him use the words we’ve used with him.

Now our son is five years old. He came home from kindergarten yesterday and saw me in the kitchen getting frustrated when a recipe wasn’t working out like it was supposed to. He said to me, “mom, it’s okay to get frustrated! Sometimes you gotta take a break and come back to it later.”

Here was my five year old – the little expert in teaching other people how to persist! He could not see the irony in the fact that he was teaching me the very thing that we’ve been teaching him all this time. I thanked him for his help and wisdom and he went about his business of playing. My recipe did end up working out later, once I wasn’t feeling so frustrated.

When our son was “instructing” us, it was very strong evidence to my husband and I that our strategy for building persistence – quietly and consistently – was working (and working and working, until we got it!).”