Ages & Stages: Helping Children Feel Competent & Capable
- Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K
Stage by Stage 0 - 2
- Toward the end of the first year, many babies enjoy attempting to feed themselves.
- After 6 months, many babies can push up and raise their bodies from the floor.
- Toddlers may "take a break" from working on one skill as they gain interest in attempting to master yet another skill.
Stage by Stage 3 - 4
- Many preschoolers use fantasy play to give them a sense of competence and control.
- Routines and rituals help to comfort and calm threes and fours.
- Activities that create order, such as blocks and sorting games, help to ease 4-year-olds.
Stage by Stage 5 - 6
- Fives and sixes are eager to share their competencies with others.
- Kindergartners are ready to take on greater responsibilities, both in terms of working independently and demonstrating positive social skills.
- Fives and sixes can appreciate the benefits of working together, moving away from being "me focused" to enjoying cooperative efforts.
O to 2 "I GET IT" By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.
A newborn is already showing her special competencies. When her nose tickles, she sneezes. When her mouth finds a nipple, she nurses well. When she has a gas bubble, with a little patting help from an adult, she produces a large burp that offers a big relief!
Babies begin to express their competencies within the first few weeks of life. They turn their heads to locate the sound of loving words from a nurturing adult. Within the first months, babies produce that magnificent sign of social competence-the smile. A baby's smile entrances the adult into providing lots of loving attention. A 1-month-old baby can respond with more than a dozen turn-taking coos when a loving adult responds with turntaking talk to the baby's vocalizations.
When a baby is about 4 months old, her hands are now open and can bat, swing at, and energetically reach for nursery birds. She'll use her feet, too, to kick at and try to move the birds on the nursery mobile over the crib. Babies who are provided with opportunities to track the mobile visually, to bat at it, and to set it in motion with their feet will feel good about being able to make interesting things happen.
After the first 6 months, babies try hard to show their developing competence in large motor skills. Placed on their tummies, babies start to push up and try to raise themselves from the floor. They even rock back and forth in preparation for starting to creep on all fours. Although some babies need more practice in creeping forward rather than backward, they soon get the skill under good control and can pad swiftly across a room on all fours toward an attractive toy or an encouraging adult.
Attempts at Self-Feeding
Toward the end of the first year, competence for self-feeding is developing. Babies like to show that they can feed themselves. They try to grab a spoon from an adult. They energetically wave a spoon placed into their hand. The adult still needs to feed the baby as she increasingly develops the dexterity and finger skills for self-feeding-a messy, but cheerful time!
Joint Attention Skills
Joint attention skills are a major accomplishment of the infant period. A baby learns to point to a toy she wants. She knows that you will understand her communicative gesture, look in the right place, and get the toy for her. This social skill of "joint attention" is a source of pride for a baby and a source of joy for the adults who recognize her budding social competence.
Competencies of Toddlers
Toddlers are developing competencies in so many domains that they may actually work on a new skill and let another skill go for a while. Sometimes toddlers learning to balance their bodies and walk well, without the wide-apart leg-waddle of the earliest attempts, may not be as adventurous in word learning. Instead, they are focused on working hard at this amazing new motor skill. Some toddlers may not be ready for learning toileting competencies while they are working hard at developing other skills.
When toddlers try to pronounce new words, they often struggle in their attempts to get their tongue, teeth, larynx, lips, and other mouth parts to pronounce a word so it is understood. Try to refrain from correcting a toddler's pronunciations. He is so proud of being able to communicate!
What You Can Do
Provide low, sturdy couches for a baby practicing getting up to standing and then cruising along while holding on to a couch.
Smile with encouragement as babies practice gross motor skills, such as crawling through a fabric tunnel.
Break down tasks into tinier steps. ECT
3 to 4 "I'LL BE THE KING!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.
Four-year-old Joseph plumps up several soft pillows to create a comfy bed for his sick invisible dog, Grover. He tells his teacher, "When I read Grover a quiet bedtime story, it will make him feel better. Then, I will rub his back and sing him the 'Hush Little Baby' song. He ate too much salad and his tummy hurts."
It is not at all uncommon for 4-year-olds, like Joseph, to have imaginary companions. They find it very comforting to have conversations and share their feelings with and about their special friends. It is very satisfying to know that someone (imaginary friend, mommy, the teacher) is there to listen to them.
Coping Through Fantasy
When the world seems just too overwhelming, preschoolers frequently turn to play and fantasy in order to slip into a comfort zone where they can be in control and have power. Although a number of preschoolers take comfort in relating to their "invisible" companions, many preschoolers prefer to hold stuffed animals and favorite toys to feel calm and soothe themselves or to manipulate plastic characters to feel secure and comfortable during stressful times.
Relying on Rituals
To soothe his sick doggy, Joseph relies on imitating rituals that are comforting to him, such as when Mommy rubs his back, sings to him, and reads him bedtime stories. This is why it is so important for preschoolers to have special personal rituals to help them comfortably make transitions throughout the day, like blowing good-bye kisses to Dad at the window at school in the morning. Many fours still find it a comforting ritual to suck their thumbs or hug a security blanket at naptime.
Unless they are very tired or hungry, most 3-year-olds are fairly relaxed. However, older, noisier fours sometimes need to be involved in activities designed to calm them down. Symbolic activities where they are able to create meaningful order and gain control out of disorganization, such as putting a puzzle together or sorting items into categories, can have a calming effect. Some children become calmer as they squeeze and roll clay, pour water into bottles, or listen to quiet music on a headset. Others may relax by doing gross motor activities, like sliding or bouncing balls.
Creating a Calm Environment
Piaget and other educators have explained how preschoolers relate best through concrete, hands-on experiences and the use of their senses. Using cool, restful colors (blue, green, violet) in quiet areas of the classroom helps to calm preschoolers and induce peacefulness. Using natural lighting in preschool classrooms rather than an abundance of fluorescent lighting has been shown to have a calming effect on young children. Uncomfortable exterior noise (loud ventilation, noisy traffic sounds) can be stressful and over-stimulating for threes and fours. Preschoolers feel calmer when teachers speak in quiet tones and when they have opportunities to listen to soothing music.
If a preschooler is having a separation problem, her mother might wish to leave a perfumed scarf that "smells like Mommy" in her child's cubby as a comfort item to hold and sniff. Special comfort foods play an important role in calming an upset preschooler.
Wide-open indoor spaces frequently send an invitation to physically active 4-year-olds to run and engage in wild, loud behavior. At the same time, quieter 3-year-olds who are just beginning to test out the environment may feel overpowered by so much space and become anxious and uncomfortable. So that fours do not spin out of control and frighten others and the threes can feel secure, teachers need to consider designing some small areas where young children can retreat and feel calm as they re-center themselves. Quiet writing alcoves, a cozy bean bag chair for reading, or a snug "cave" made from a towel and a low table provide for comfortable, private areas. Providing a "calm-down corner" where angry or frustrated preschoolers can go to gain control and feel secure and comfortable is helpful. Offering props and visual boundaries, like trays for finger painting, individual carpet squares to sit on during story-time, or "bubble spaces" to dance within during movement activities, provides comfortable personal spaces for children who need to define their own spaces.
Although 3-year-olds enjoy playing with a friend at school or in the park, when they become tired or frustrated, they turn to the trusted adults in their lives to give them comfort and make them feel safe. Preschoolers have great faith in an adult's power to "make it all better" as they reassure and calm them. By the time they are four, and not as egocentric, an empathic good friend or older sibling may be able to help soothe an agitated, confused, or upset preschooler.
What You Can Do
Be physically available. Be aware of stress points for various children. Hold or rock upset preschoolers. Smile and sing in a soothing voice to calm them.
Provide props. Offer puppets, masks, hats, and unbreakable mirrors for preschoolers to act out scenarios. This helps them to gain control of their feelings and calm down during dramatic play.
Model relaxation techniques. Show preschoolers how to take deep breaths or leave a stressful situation and stay calm.
5 to 6 "I CAN DO THAT!" by Ellen Booth Church
With the arrival of spring, children are bustling around the playground pulling out forgotten toys. Jeremy and Joyce are dismayed when they find the fish pond game is a tangled mass. In walks Susan, who confidently says, "I know how to fix it. You hold one pole and you hold the other and we'll unwind the strings!"
By April of the kindergarten year, children are more than happy to show you how much they have learned and how capable they are! Think back to the beginning of the year to those little 5-year-olds who entered and you can easily see how they have succeeded in meeting so many challenges this year. From learning how to walk in line and tie their shoes, to sharing a book or telling a story, 5- and 6-year-olds grow immensely in the "competence department" in just one short kindergarten year. Like Susan in the above vignette, most kindergartners like to help and show what they know how to do. This is a time of celebration of new skills and understandings.
Five- and 6-year-old children want to feel responsible and are often eager to demonstrate just what they can do. Responsibility is the natural "offspring" of competence. Often you just have to "expect" them to be responsible, and they will be. Your expectations, both verbal and nonverbal, send a strong message to children about their capabilities. If you think they can be responsible, they will think so, too! Getting over the first step of believing they can do it makes every "how to" you teach that much easier.
Feeling competent and capable instills in children a sense of their own maturity as they are allowed to take on more responsibility and independence. As 5- and 6-year-olds demonstrate their ability to be responsible, their social and practical skills increase by leaps and bounds. Responsibility comes in many forms. It may take the shape of putting away toys or putting tops on markers, clearing the table, brushing teeth, and crossing the street safely. It can also include social responsibilities, such as using good manners and being aware of other's feelings. If children are responsible they are often mature enough to know how and when to use these pro-social skills and to be trusted in a variety of situations. You can support these skills with a variety of activities.
Happily, one of the by-products of kindergartners' feeling competent and capable is their desire to cooperate with others. A growing positive self-image leads 5- and 6-year-old children to want to share more with others. During this stage, children learn that cooperation means that a fun experience like building a sandcastle is even more fun when it's shared! There is an excitement in the shared planning and creating that doesn't happen all alone. This realization of the value of working and playing together helps move children from a very "me" focused way of being into a more universal sense of self-competency. By providing many opportunities to work and play together, you will be strengthening children's understanding of self, which will support them throughout life.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Start small with classroom tasks that they can do and will be proud of. Give children more responsibility for organizing and cleaning the room, serving snack, and in transitions and group time activities.
Invite children to share their competence with the group in a show-and-tell type situation. Children can show a skill like snapping their fingers or singing a song and even "teach" others how to do it, too!
Involve children with local or global ways to show what they can do. Children might like to collect pennies for a cause or bake cookies for a food bank. This allows children to feel even more capable!