Give them something sharp, then look away...
I was sitting with a girl, about 5 years old, who was whittling a stick of willow with a peeler. Well actually, I think she thought she was whittling. I'm not really sure what you would call it.
She had the peeler upside down and was scraping it along the stick – a very ineffective way to whittle, by the way... She looked slightly confused about why it wasn't working, but continued to repeat the same action over and over and over again.
I felt the urge to jump in and help her, but quickly restrained myself. I decided I'd use what I thought was a much better technique. Rather than forcing my 'support' upon her, I gave her the option by asking her, “Would you like some help?”
She looked up at me and said blankly, “No.”
She carried on with her work and I sat there thinking, “Well, that told me didn't it?”
The balance between offering necessary support and just plain interfering can be tricky to find sometimes. It takes a lot of self awareness and a good understanding of your learners to get it right. I'm constantly working on it, but had obviously misjudged it here...
However, it did make me think about another technique that is valuable for these sorts of situations; Situations where either of the following apply:
(a) you see someone struggling to achieve something and know that you could help or
(b) the control freak side of you emerges as you watch someone do something 'wrong' over and over again (anyone else willing to admit with me they sometimes have this problem?!)
The technique I'm referring to works like this...
Before jumping in to help, just do this first:
As in, simply turn your head so you are looking away from that person rather than at them. If that sounds like a strange suggestion to you, please hear me out because looking away can do a few things:
It can reduce pressure.
People tend to be more relaxed when they don't have others staring at them or watching over them. Can you remember a time you were trying to achieve something, possibly for the first time, and someone was watching you do it the whole time? What did that feel like? Did it make you feel supported or did it add extra pressure, possibly making the task even more difficult than it was originally?
I remember playing a game of frisbee golf once with a group of friends for the first time. I hadn't thrown a frisbee for a very long time so I wasn't very confident. When my turn rolled around, I grasped the frisbee in one hand and just as I was about to toss it, I felt the eyes of all my friends watching me. The frisbee slipped from my fingers and rather than flying across the open grass field in front of me like I had intended it to, it flew straight into the stomach of my friend... who was standing behind me... Don't worry, my friend was not in the least bit hurt and it elicited a lot of laughter, but it also dented my throwing confidence. I labelled myself as having “extremely bad aim” for a long time after that.
Now, I am not claiming any serious and lasting damage from my failed frisbee experience, but I do think it's a relevant example of how being watched can make performing a task (even one as simple as throwing a frisbee!) more difficult than it should be. By looking away, we give people extra time and space to try to work something out for themselves first, without the added pressure of someone hovering over them.
It can help build confidence and self-esteem.
Looking away can communicate to your learners that you trust their abilities. By giving them that extra time and space, you can demonstrate to them that you believe they are capable. This can do wonders for improving confidence and self-esteem, particularly when they do manage to achieve the task on their own. If you had stepped in too soon, it would have prevented such an opportunity from occurring. And even if they don't manage it on their own, looking away before stepping in gives them a safe space to make mistakes. Louise Porter (2003 ) states, "Children will become discouraged if we expect them to get things right every time or to 'do their best' always. When we point out their errors, they might learn that making mistakes is wrong, when instead if they are not making mistakes, that means they already knew how to do a task. This is not called learning: it is practising” (pg 50).
It can reduce your own anxiety about it.
Looking away can be helpful to us as practitioners as well. It can reduce our own anxiety because what we can't see can't bother us! If, like me, you sometimes find yourself having a battle in your own mind about whether to step in or not, looking away can help by halting the inner struggle for just a moment. This can provide you a little bit of relief while also giving your learner the extra time they may need to complete the task for themselves.
Although this technique sounds simple, it can actually feel extremely difficult to do sometimes, particularly when sharp tools are involved. Obviously, please always rely on your own risk assessments and personal judgement first; I merely suggest that if you've assessed the situation as safe, consider giving your learners that extra time and space before stepping in by looking away...
That's what I did after the five year old at the start of this story rejected my offer to help. I just gazed off in another direction (not even looking at her out of the corner of my eye), and when I glanced back a few moments later she had the peeler right side up and said proudly, “I think I'm getting the hang of this.”
Porter L (2003) Young Children's Behaviour 2nd Edition, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.