Our Just-Right Challenge

The term ‘just-right challenge’ was first coined by well-known Occupational Therapist (OT) Jean Ayres. She was referring to finding activities for children that are neither too easy nor too hard. The secret, she said, was pitching a task just above their current level of functioning – so that it was definitely attainable but not so difficult that they would experience frustration and not so easy that they wouldn’t develop any new skills. I think it’s a concept well-known and used within the field of OT.

The just-right challenge is like the sweet spot of learning, when you pitch something just perfectly and you can see your child grasping a concept right before your eyes. The just-right challenge is essential for developing confidence and turning the I’m Stupid feelings on their head. It’s a crucial, yet largely underrated skill in any parent, teacher or therapist.

The idea first came to my attention when I attended a Sensory Integration training course, an approach also derived by Ayres, several years ago. Despite practising it all the time without actively labelling what I’m doing, the term just popped into my head the other day, probably because we have been having some issues with finding the just-right challenge for Little Bear.

Little Bear attends swimming lessons every Saturday and has been doing very well, so well in fact that his teacher said he was ready to move up to the next group. Little Bear seemed pleased with himself and I took him along the following week. I popped back to the pool a few minutes before the end to wait for Little Bear with his towel. When I got there I was shocked to see he was crying. “What’s the matter?” I asked the instructor who was closer to me than he was. “He’s just cold” she said.

Well that didn’t stack up because Little Bear is one of the toughest children I’ve ever met, he’s practically a Marine, he doesn’t cry because he’s cold.

Little Bear’s lesson is now at the deep end of the pool and he, along with the other children, was standing along the furthest edge, preparing to jump in. I noticed that Little Bear was about a foot smaller than the other children who appeared about 8 or 9 years old. Little Bear looked extremely uncertain but did jump in. He swam straight to the edge, got out, came to me and dissolved into a crying wreck. It just wasn’t like him. What on earth was wrong?

After a lot of cuddling and drying Little Bear managed to tell me that it was too deep and he was scared. I said I would speak to his instructor as I could already foresee a problem with next week’s session. I went back into her, wondering if he’d accidentally gone into the wrong group. No, she said, he was absolutely fine, he could keep up with the lesson. He was fine; he’d be fine next week. She said ‘fine’ a lot. I don’t find ‘fine’ particularly reassuring.

The following day Grizzly took both Bears for a fun swim, thinking it would boost Little Bear’s confidence. They had fun, they dived in, and it was all good. It was fine.

When the next swimming lesson rolled around I was careful to keep an upbeat approach. It was working until we got to the front door of the pool building when Little Bear began crying and wouldn’t go in. He didn’t have to do the jumping in bit if he didn’t want to I reassured, I would come back early for him. Anyway, the long and short of it was that when we entered the pool area Little Bear was crying and gripping on to me for dear life. This is not like him: he usually skips in on his own. The new instructor, who I was quickly growing annoyed with, told him to get in, he’d be fine: cue more crying and clinging to me. The instructor continued to teach the other children and made no move to come to Little Bear, reassure him or anything else remotely useful.

Thankfully, Little Bear’s previous instructor, who was teaching a class in the middle section of the pool, noticed what was happening and asked if he would like to re-join her group. “Sometimes the jump to the next group is too much,” she said, “don’t worry about it, he can come with me”. I thought Little Bear would have been relieved (I certainly was) and would have hopped straight back in. He didn’t though, continuing to cry and hold onto to me. He managed to tell me that although he did want to go back to his old tutor he now didn’t know any of the children in her group because the time of his lesson had also changed. Evidently this was unsettling him.

The old instructor listened, took him quickly into the pool, introduced the other children and had him swimming a width before he had time to protest further. She was like a swimming fairy and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The would-be new instructor was unfortunately more like a wet lettuce.

I watched the rest of the session from the side, in the bit where parents are forbidden to be, as I had promised Little Bear I would and he kept checking I was still there. As I stood, I reflected. The thing is that we want our children to do well and we want to be able to celebrate their achievements with them. When children work hard and succeed they are generally rewarded by being able to move up a group or go onto a harder task or level. That is the usual way of things in school and sporting situations. However, what is often not considered (and I failed to consider on this occasion) is that moving up means leaving behind everything familiar to you. In this case it meant leaving the instructor Little Bear knew and was comfortable with. It meant leaving the children he knew and was familiar with. Although he would still be going to the same place, it also meant he would be in a different part of the pool: a deeper, more challenging part. As a transition I had underestimated it.

Yes Little Bear was doing really well at swimming but moving him up a group was not the just-right challenge for him. It was a too-far-out-of-the-comfort-zone challenge.

That is the tricky thing for children who have experienced developmental trauma or who struggle with attachment: finding the just-right challenge for them (obviously it’s very different child to child). You cannot simply base the level of challenge on their skill level. Clearly in terms of Little Bear’s swimming ability, he was capable of being in the harder lesson. However, that didn’t take into account his emotional or attachment needs which, at the moment, mean that taking the leap away from everything familiar leads to him feeling unsafe. He would probably have coped better (it’s all good in retrospect) had the whole group and the tutor moved to the deep end; or had they stayed where they were and just done harder swimming.

I suspect also, that Little Bear has had a bad experience in water in the past as he was terrified of it when he first arrived and clung onto me the first time we went into a pool – arms tight around my neck, feet wedged between my thighs, clutching on limpet-like. It was ironic really as I dislike water and can barely swim but it was undoubtedly good for bonding as I kept him safe, successfully hid my fear and he slowly found his confidence. Grizzly takes the boys swimming a lot now and Little Bear had seemingly fully conquered any fears he used to have. That’s the thing about trauma though, it pops up when you least expect it and perhaps something about standing at that deep end, already out of his comfort zone, staring into the aqua depths triggered something? A memory? A fear?

We couldn’t really have anticipated the possible trigger but with hindsight I think we should have been able to see that moving up a group was a challenge too far. For now, doing very well in the group he is in is the just-right swimming challenge for Little Bear.

When it comes to education, finding the just-right challenge for him has been even trickier. Not only do we have to consider his skills, his attachments and familiarity but we also have to consider his self-esteem and sensory needs (he is pretty confident physically and sports meet his sensory needs well). In addition, as with many children, what Little Bear is capable of on any given day can fluctuate. If he’s particularly anxious or hungry or unwell or excited he is unlikely to manage as much as if he is calm and relaxed. The just-right challenge can vary minute to minute and task to task and requires an adult to really know him to be able to differentiate demands accordingly. My post Jigsaws is a good example of me getting the just-right challenge bob-on and the positive outcome that resulted from it.

Too often we don’t hit the right challenge level, usually making the challenge too hard, resulting in upset, frustration and even aggression. As a rule we have now learned that Little Bear’s just-right challenge tends to be a little below his full ability when all the stars are in alignment. Pushing him too hard causes a panic, even if we know he is able to achieve whatever it is.

In a recent meeting with school, his teacher told us that he is doing well in his Maths group and they are considering moving him up. Whilst it is fabulous that our little dude who couldn’t count for toffee on school entry has overtaken some of his peers and has taken to extending his own learning (why do tens and units when you could do twenties or thirties and units?!), knowing him as we do, the just-right challenge for him is being the best in the group he’s in, not struggling to keep up in the next group. Yes, he would probably be able to do some of the work but he would find it hard and his confidence would suffer. I think he would enter scared-mode. Where he is, he can succeed nearly all of the time which is just-right for now.

 

 

*It’s difficult in a situation like swimming where the teachers don’t know anything about Little Bear or his background so aren’t aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments. I never know whether I should try to tell them or not but, practically, it would be difficult as they are in the pool and I would need to shout!

**Whilst I have spent the whole post pointing out the problems, I shouldn’t omit to point out that Little Bear did fabulously being able to let his emotions out and putting his fears into words and telling them to me. It’s not so long ago that he would have had a meltdown or punched somebody instead. Progress comes in many forms.

 

 

 

 

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Our Just-Right Challenge

I’m Stupid

The following comment was written in Little Bear’s take home book recently: “Little Bear keeps saying he is stupid when we’re doing English. Obviously we tell him he’s not but he’s very insistent”.

Firstly, I could hear the discomfort in Mrs C’s voice, the TA, as I read it to myself. Hearing a child say they are stupid is a very unpleasant thing to hear. Generally, as grown-ups, we’d rather they didn’t say that, about themselves or anybody else. I can hear the unwritten plea: how can I make him stop?

Well, as we have discussed on several occasions in school meetings, telling him he isn’t stupid isn’t going to work, for the simple fact that he believes he is. Let me turn to all round adoption guru, Dan Hughes, to explain this:

“When your child verbalises his shame, it is important not to reassure or argue with him – this would only make him think that you do not really know him or that you are lying to him. A more helpful response will be to express empathy and then curiosity about his sense of shame”.

I have interpreted this as needing to say, “It must be really hard to feel stupid. I wonder if it is because you are finding x, y or z a bit tricky?” I usually go on to say that I know he can do whatever it is that is being asked and that I will help him. I then put whatever measures are necessary in place to ensure that he succeeds at the task. I might make the task a bit easier or shorter, do part of it for him or just give general encouragement to have a go. I think it’s essential that he completes the task though in order to get a sense of satisfaction at the end. What better way to prove to yourself that you CAN do something, than actually doing it? (See Jigsaws for more detail on how this can work).

I have definitely explained this process to Mrs C before but I think that sometimes she doesn’t believe what I say/ doesn’t believe I know anything and, aside from my own personal insecurities that I can easily distract myself with, perhaps this is just a difficult way of working for some people. It certainly isn’t something that I would naturally have done: I have only been doing it on Dan’s advice. After trying it a few times I was fully bought in. When I get the wondering right, Little Bear often crumbles, seemingly with relief that somebody actually gets it. I don’t always get the wondering right, his little mind being as complex as it is, but on some level I think he appreciates the trying. It is certainly better than a flat “no, you’re not stupid” which, when you think about it, is more about the adult’s need to stop hearing it, rather than being of any therapeutic benefit to the child.

Funnily enough, I had a chat recently with another adopter (not in a work capacity), who said their son also frequently says he is stupid too. Their way of dealing with this uncomfortable comment has been to ban the words ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ in their home. I know I shouldn’t judge someone else’s parenting but by banning those words from a child’s lexicon, you are effectively banning their ability to talk to you about their inner state of mind. How are they supposed to work through their shame if they are not permitted to discuss it? I suspect that just adds shame about having shame to the big pot of unwanted, hard to deal with feelings.

Obviously I don’t want my gorgeous, clever, funny Little Bear to feel stupid. Of course I don’t. But if that is how he feels, I really do need him to be able to tell me. How can I help him otherwise?

Sometimes, to help with challenging those self-beliefs, I have gone to some strange lengths.

As I’m convinced that a child needs to experience success in order to change their feelings and beliefs about themselves, the biggest challenge is often getting them to have a go at whatever the activity is in the first place. It turns out that donning an American-esque cheerleading/ army PT instructor type of vibe is pretty useful in these situations. Grizzly is very much a natural at this and I have witnessed him many a time getting a child to do something they aren’t too confident about by shouting ‘push it, push it’ or ‘come on smash it’ in his naturally loud voice. It isn’t a shouting at them kind of way, it’s more of a pumping everyone up before a match kind of way; an exuberant boosting of their self-esteem and public show of your belief in their ability to do it.

Whilst I do not have a loud voice or such an exuberant manner, I am not against stealing good ideas.

Over the last few weeks Little Bear has been avidly watching a programme on Netflix called Beast Master. It is like Ninja Warrior, only harder. As Little Bear tends to, he now thinks he is the Beast Master (see Fantasy versus Reality). At bedtime the other day, he was telling me all about his Beast Master abilities. How good he is at flips, how long he can hang for etc. We then got onto the reading part of his bedtime routine and his demeanour drastically changed. “I’m no good at reading”, he said, “I’m stupid at it”. My inner cheerleader kicked in. “Well, I’m shocked at you Beast Master. I didn’t think you would be all miserable about reading a book. I thought you would smash it like the Beast Master course”. He looked at me and I could see him wondering if that was really true, if he really could smash it. Leaving no time for doubt, I continued a la Grizzly, “come on Beast Master, smash it”.

And he smashed it. He read with more drive and determination than I have seen for a several weeks. He knew he’d smashed it too. We high-fived (am I actually turning American?!) and made a big deal out of how well he had done. It’s just one instance of succeeding at reading but I really believe that all the small instances add up and one day, he’ll really believe he can do it, because he can. The Beast Master won’t work every time, I’ll have to stay on my toes and come up with new ways of motivating and encouraging him but it’s worth it, because every success, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of leaving the “I’m stupid” feelings behind.

In order to really maximise the opportunity offered to us by Beast Master I needed to share it with school in the hope they too might be mad enough to give it a go. I did feel like a bit of a wally explaining it in the take home book and wondered what on earth they would make of our alternative methods. Thankfully, Little Bear’s teacher fully understands the need to use a child’s interests to motivate their work and bless her she totally did the Beast Master thing. Apparently, the Beast Master was in attendance at school, he smashed his reading and he completed lots of other work that hadn’t been done over previous days. He had an extremely successful day: more success, more steps forwards.

I also shared that little snippet of life with my Bears with school in order to try to change the narrative away from “no, you’re not stupid”, to something more constructive. I know Little Bear’s teacher gets it and I’m so grateful for her open attitude towards teaching him. I don’t know whether Mrs C gets it. I suspect she thinks I’m bonkers.

We still have plenty of work to do on Little Bear’s self-construct, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and every piece of genuine praise, every experience of success, every time he exceeds his own expectations of himself, takes us one step closer to the robust self-esteem we are aiming for. And if that involves us chanting “smash it, smash it” occasionally then so be it.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Stupid