Independence: Helping children help themselves
Friday, February 22, 2013
“I know. I had that lesson already. I can help you,” I overheard a more experienced older child say to a younger one as she offered help with an experiment. We hear words like this every day as children give help to and receive help from one another. It is important that our children have the chance to learn how to help others and how to ask for help when they need it.
In “The Secret of Childhood,” Maria Montessori wrote, “These words reveal the child’s inner needs: help me to do it alone.”
It is deeply satisfying to practice and build a new skill and then share it with others. When we help others by showing them just what they need to move forward on their own, instead of doing the task for them, we give them a gift they can continue to build on.
As adults, we are experts in many areas our children are just beginning to learn. We have had years of practice and experience to build our knowledge, and help from many wise people along the way. When offering help to children, Montessori’s words are a useful guide. So, too, is the derivation of the word help, the Old English word helpan, which means do good to.
How can we offer help that supports a child’s independence and does good?
Respect: We can respect the child’s need for independence by observing and celebrating his efforts, by asking before we offer help, and by sharing what we know when he asks.
Time: We can offer enough time for the child to be independent by trying to avoid rushing from place to place or from one activity to the next. New skills take longer to complete than well-practiced ones, and a child’s pace isn’t always the same as an adult’s. Independence takes time.
Building an environment that supports independence: Having a regular routine that your child knows can help him or her be more successful in taking responsibility for daily tasks.
Creating a space where your child can easily and independently work on projects with accessible materials he or she knows how to use is also important. If your family cooks together, for example, make sure the tools your child uses are within her reach. When you share a new skill with your child, think about how you can provide the materials, time and space for it to become something your he can do on his own.
Being friendly with mistakes: As we learn new skills, mistakes often happen.
Accepting this and helping your child understand that mistakes are normal (and wonderful learning tools) gives her permission to persist at practicing and building interesting, challenging skills.
Stepping back: Sometimes, we give more help than children need. When this happens, children sometimes give up on the activity at hand, seeing it as the adult’s rather than their own.
When we offer help, it’s useful to step back and observe for a moment. If your child is carrying on independently, you have probably offered just the right amount of help.
Zoe Castro is the lower elementary teacher at Hollis Montessori School. She can be reached at email@example.com.