If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to appreciate the heck out of our teachers and support staff! Working with your kiddo can be tough, often ending in tears (yours) and frustration (yours again). Whether it’s at your kitchen table, in the pool, or in the classroom, you want to keep kids challenged. But how do you find the sweet spot between meltdown and learning?
Occupational therapists (OTs) are great at finding the "just right" challenge for children. A just right challenge is something that is slightly above what a person can easily do.
If an activity is too hard, the child might get frustrated or be scared to try. You’ve been scouring Pinterest for the best sandcastle-themed craft, and you think you’ve found a fridge-worthy template. You sit down at the table with the supplies that you’ve scavenged and get to work. But look out - the template has a lot of cutting, and it’s quite complex. Your kiddo starts trying to cut it, but isn’t able to follow along all the lines. Before you know it, scissors are flying and tears are flowing. That lid has flipped and now, instead of being on your way to winning 'Parent of the Year,' you’re trying to convince this tiny ball of anger to take a firework breath! That was too hard.
If an activity is too easy, kids will not improve their skills and become more independent. This time, you stay up until midnight to find an activity on Pinterest that won’t end in a meltdown. The next day, you lay out the supplies and start prepping that award-winning speech. Before you can even explain what to do, your kiddo has cut out the shapes, glued them on, and added the sand and sparkles. Well, that took 6 minutes - now what to do for the rest of the morning?? That was too easy.
A task that is "just right" will push them enough to challenge their abilities. Finding the perfect level of difficulty applies to more than just crafts and motor skills. With sensory discomfort, a “just right” challenge might be something that could make the kiddo slightly uncomfortable. For example, if your child detests having their hands dirty and you’re working on getting them more comfortable with tactile input, start with a sensory bin that is dry. Asking them to play in a bin of dried beans or water beads will challenge their comfort level, but keep their hands clean. Remember, it’s important not to force kids to try things that they aren’t comfortable with. If you present an activity as an invitation to play, and they bolt from the table, it was too hard. Grade it down to make it easier to tolerate.
To find that “just right” challenge, start with a task that your child is able to complete easily and then make it slightly more difficult. The key is to push your child to the next level, but to keep the activity fun! Sometimes this means modifying the activity that you have planned. You could have your kiddo 'shadow cut' the tricky craft out to make it a bit easier, or have them draw and cut out their own designs to make it more challenging.
When your child completes a just right challenge, they feel empowered to do activities that they might not have thought they could. They are learning that challenges are okay, and that they have the skills to manage them. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.