Thursday, 29 May 2014

Thinking about the competent child again...

Looking in several dictionaries... they all said that...
Competent means
sufficiently qualified, capable, efficient - having ability or capacity
Etymology- from Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary -
"to strive after together, to agree with; hence, to be fit. See compete"
from Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary
"to seek, to strive after"

"Leaders are not, as we are often led to think, people who go along with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see, whether anyone is following them. "Leadership qualities" are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. They include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, stubbornness, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head, even when things are going badly. True leaders, in short, do not make people into followers, but into other leaders. "
~John Holt~ Teach Your Own
So as a  teacher if I am not helping the child to become self-sufficient then I am not doing my job properly... 
I do not think that means that I should let them do everything themselves, but giving them the opportunity to learn so that they are capable... is allowing them to take too much food so that more than half a plate of food is wasted every day a way of teaching them to be competent? Or do we need to intervene and show them how to take an aoppropriate amount of food, and if still hungry to take a little more? I feel that sometimes there is a confusion between allowing children to be competent and allowing children to do everything themselves... we would never let someone get into a car believing in their competence to drive... they are required to pratice and prove their competence first - they are driven around from place to place until they have that competence... the same for doctors, teachers - for just about all professions - there is a requirement that competence is proved before we allow them to get on with their work...
Why is there this difference between children and adults?
I am by no means saying that we should be doing everything for the children, but maybe we should be enabling them... before giving them tasks that maybe they are not physically/socially/emotionally prepared for .. because as Dr Laura Markham writes
"Rescuing children can prevent them from learning important lessons. But research shows that children who see their parents stand by and let them fail experience that as not being loved. Instead of learning the lesson that they should have practiced that clarinet, or read the directions on that science kit, they learn the lesson that they are failures, that they cannot manage themselves, and that their parents did not care enough to help them not be failures or teach them to manage themselves."

So how does that relate to the plate of food or preschoolers in general... should we allow children to make the same mistake over and over and over again... because serving themself makes them competent... should they be allowed to think it is OK to waste food in this way? Is it Ok that they fill their plates with food they are not keen on because they like the senstation of pouring and serving themselves, depriving the other children who DO like the food from eating as much as they would like? OR could we provide these children with the need to pout and serve play opportunities to pour and pour to their hearts content so that when it comes to food they DO have the competence to make the decision about how much food they want to eat and take an appropriate portion, rather than focus on the wonderful sensation of pouring?

Does the action of small children serving themselves make them competent... or is it the opportunity to be able to do this that allows them to be competent... afterall taking a portion yourself requires understanding how hungry you are and taking the appropriate amount of food, it requires an understanding of what foods taste like and understanding that sometimes a very small portion of something new can be a good idea to test whether or not you like it (the number of times I have seen children not able to eat any of their food on the plate because they have put too much of something they really don't like on their plate smothering everything they usually like), it requires hand strength, it requires hand and eye coordination, it requires an understanding of mathematics and how the food can be shared between everyone on the table, it requires empathy so that food is shared fairly (and that does not mean that everyone gets the same amount, but everyone gets what they need - and that is advanced thinking indeed)... serving food offers a great amount of learning opportunities... so I am all for it... but not to expose the children to making the same mistake EVERY SINGLE TIME, and there are no problems with mistakes, mistakes are there for learning, but if there is no learning happening then there has been a stage missed somewhere. I think it then means we have to back a step or two and allow the child/ren to develop the skills required, at their pace, and through play. Through sharing games, the pouring games, through tasting games - through a whole variety of play and learning opportunities we can allow the child to be competent - to be "sufficiently qualified, capable, to have the ability".
I believe in the competent child... but I do not believe that we help children to swim by throwing them in the deep end... I want them to feel confident, to explore and play before THEY feel ready to swim in the deep end.

"Modern children were considerably less innocent than parents and the larger society supposed, and postmodern children are less competent than their parents and the society as a whole would like to believe. . . . The perception of childhood competence has shifted much of the responsibility for child protection and security from parents and society to children themselves". David Elkind

So what does this mean? For me it means that maybe in our efforts to see the child as competent we are forgetting that we still need to scaffold them... the children learn with us and that we should not be afraid of our role supporting the children... we have to find a balance, which will be unique for each child, and for each group, where they get the support they need as well as the space, opportunities and time they need to develop the skills they need to try everything out themselves... to make mistakes and learn from them... and that if they are not learning from mistakes to not let them stay there but to work on what is it they need to move forward in their own development...

David Elkind writes in "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk" that without giving the children time to reflect and talk about their experiences that they are unlikely to learn from them... how often do teachers take the time to talk about lunch time and snack time experiences and serving food themselves...? Are they being given the time to reflect on what they are doing? Are we just expecting them to be competent by letting them serve themselves, expecting them to learn everything through just doing? Is it not possible for a child to learn by watching an adult too, so that they can see what an appropriate portion looks like so that they can then give it a go themselves? The appropriate portion being based on the adults knowledge of how much the child eats and what the child likes to eat...

He also writes that young children do not retain skills in the same ways as older children and adults, and that teachers of young children should be looking out for children's welfare as this is something that young children cannot do for themselves... I interpret this as that there are skills that they are going to not master until later so adult support is important to ensure that the children never feel like failures, that they are not exposed to doing things outside of their capabilities, with the understanding that they have the potential to to all of this, and that each child is unique and will develop the skills to complete tasks at different times in their lives.
As Laura Markham writes it is important that we focus on the process and their enthusiasm for learning... and to support the children... this though I do not think means that we let children do anything they want to ensure that their enthusiasm is maintained... for example when the children at my work start blowing bubbles in their drinks at lunch I make sure that the afternoon is filled with bubbles blowing exploration fun and play so that they have the opportunity to explore the science and social interaction and motor skills of bubble blowing - while also allowing them to focus on eating their food at lunch... because for some children they get so distracted by the bubble blowing that they are unable to eat, and I know that later they are going to regret that decision of not eating as their hunger makes them more irritable than usual... so for the sake of the children's well-being I will restrict exploration at lunch and move it to a more appropriate time where they are able to explore more fully... just as I would provide pouring fun opportunities for children who simply like to pour and not eat/drink what they serve themselves...

The competent child...

defining what that means... not just for me, but for everyone, so that we can all talk about the same thing... not that I am writing here the definition, but simply my (current) definition so that when other talk with me, you have a better understanding of what I mean when I say competent child... so that there is the opportuntiy to listen to other defintions and not just talk about the competent child thinking that we are talking about the same thing...

I do believe in the competent child. I believe that my role as teacher and care-giver is important to find the balance between support and letting the children children work it out for themselves... scaffolding
getting to know each child to understand what they skills they have and what they are already capable of, and what skills I can provide opportunities for them to learn, discover and acquire so that they become more cabale and can exercise more autonomy over their lives.
This is not the first time writing about "The Competent Child" and exploring what It means, and I doubt it will be the last either... but there are now 60 posts dedicated to the competent child... check them out if you have the time and desire to find out more about the competent child through my eyes!!


  1. This whole post is thought-provoking as it helps me look at my interactions with my students and my own kids. This in particular stood out: "So as a teacher if I am not helping the child to become self-sufficient then I am not doing my job properly"...
    I sometimes feel that the class is more than just the individuals in it, but also a larger organism that feels and acts. Some days great things are possible; some days everyone just needs time to retreat to their comfort zone and play it safe. I used to feel defeated on those latter days, when my efforts to teach a lesson or complete a task would all result in failure, tears, frustration, or behaviour. Now with much more choice in the program, and much less direct instruction from me, I find it easier to tune into the emotions at play and sense when pushing students to broaden their thinking isn't a good idea. But then I wonder if I'm not trusting students to work through the difficult times when I allow big projects to lay fallow for a day or two.

    There are days I'm not able to get to everyone in the room who wants my time, but usually someone in the class does help, even though I may not know until after the fact. I love seeing someone come to me for something simple such as help with opening a container or tying a shoelace, only to have them headed off at the pass by a helpful: "Oh no, let me do that for you". They are certainly showing themselves and to others to be capable.

    1. Laurel we work really hard on getting the children to help each other out... I feel it is so important, not only to be able to offer a friend help but also to know how to ask for help and to be capable of asking for help from peers and teachers... it is a skills all people need to learn...

      it is wonderful when you can see the children helping each other...