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Learning About Our Approach: How we support children in learning self-help skills

Submitted by Heather on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 10:53

by Heather Malley

and Radha Carmen (Teacher at Caterpillar Cottage)


Throughout the preschool years, children are learning how to do many things for themselves. As preschool teachers supervising groups of children we know all too well the temptation of doing everything for them, such as clean up and putting on shoes. However, we also know that this doesn't provide opportunities to develop important skills and autonomy. Children develop important fine and gross motor skills as well as learning cooperative teamwork and responsibility when they are afforded the support and time to do things for themselves.

Within the structure of our preschool day, there are multiple opportunities and teacher supports for the development of self and classroom care skills, such as opportunities to: use a dustpan or clean up a spill; put materials and activities away; pour water or milk; open lunch containers; put on jackets; change clothes; put on shoes; and wash hands. 

The development of intellectual and social autonomy are also supported in a variety of contexts throughout a preschool day. Children are immersed in solving their own problems with teacher support spanning from figuring out what blocks to use so that their structure is more stable to solving a peer conflict or approaching the cleanup of the classroom and yard together. In group contexts, children are also frequently provided opportunities to contribute ideas, demonstrate or present, and participate in group discussions. 

Our approach at preschool is to scaffold children's learning and inherent drive towards mastering new skills. We can risk diminishing this natural interest when we automatically jump in and do this for children. In any given scenario, as often as we can, we gauge where a child is with a particular task and encourage and support them in learning how to reach the next level of learning.  When a child states the need to put on a jacket or a pair of shoes, we strive to support children in doing this for themselves. For example, in such a scenario you might hear a teacher say "Oh, I see you need your shoes on so that you can come out of the sandbox, let's figure out how to put them on together."

From there the teacher may or may not provide assistance, but as often as we can we are supportively working towards the goal of allowing the child to accomplish these tasks on their own. This approach often includes some form of encouraging words such as stating that we know a child can accomplish the task on their own, and that we are here to help them figure that out. With responsive dialogue and opportunities to learn these skills, children find these new skills rewarding and show great pride in their new accomplishments. We have observed that some children are learning how to model and support each other's success in trying new tasks as well.  

There are natural opportunities for this kind of learning throughout the day, as well as occasional opportunities to practice these skills in planned group activities. One example of this is when we recently had pouring practice with the child-sized pitchers at our group times. This opportunity provided children with some focused learning about how to pour, how much to pour and to pour slowly. The number of table spills we had during snack and lunch times decreased dramatically once we implemented this demonstration in both groups. We saw the care that many children were taking in slowly pouring their drink and stopping before it was too full.

It is also helpful when there are opportunities to practice these self help skills at home. Here are a few helpful hints if you are wanting to provide more support for this kind of learning at home: 

  • Observe your child's attempts to do things on their own. Use these opportunities to identify which part of the task is difficult for them. 
  • Try to find ways to support them without doing it for them.
  •  Talking about what they are doing while they do it can be helpful to develop important cognitive and language skills. An example might be "I see you are noticing your sock is turned inside-out, and you are figuring out how to turn it right side out..."
  •  Remember what it was like when you tried to do a new and difficult task . This can help you empathize when your child gets frustrated. You might say, "I see you are frustrated with this task." Then wait a moment to ensure that your child feels heard before saying "Would you like some help figuring this out?"
  • It is important to avoid power struggles. At these ages, when children are driven towards autonomy and haven't mastered the skills needed to be autonomous, it is common for children to become overwhelmed with emotion or frustration. If they are upset and don't want to persist at a task, help your child feel understood by asking if they are frustrated or upset. Along with empathy, recognize your child's effort. He or she can return to it another time when they are able to focus on trying again.
  • The best moments for learning are when our children are interested, even though this isn't always convenient. An example might be when they want to put on their own shoes and we are late for an event. In these instances our own needs are in conflict with our children's and we have to make a choice about what is more important.