Pushing, with a feather duster

Although there are many challenges involved in being a parent, there’s one that perseveres through stages and ages, and that’s the challenge of good guidance.

Be it in academics, sport, culture or social skills, our role of guide and mentor is what eggs kids on to keep striving for the next level. But, a struggle that’s common to us all is in knowing when to push and when to ease off.

In educational theory there’s something called the “zone of proximal development (ZPD).” This is the phase at which a child can master a task if they’re given appropriate help and support. That is, they’re ready to learn the new skill or concept, and will do so with the help of a good guide, but they can’t do it alone.

When students are trying to master a skill that’s beyond their level (they haven’t reached that zone yet), the task will be frustrating and unpleasant. Think of a student who’s being asked to ski parallel turns but whose size, balance, muscles and confidence default them to snowplowing. If the teacher demands they give up the snowplow at this stage, the child can feel fear, frustration and potentially resentment. They may give up on ever trying because the push was too strong too early.

Conversely, if a student is being “taught” skills far below their ZPD, they can become bored and lose interest because they won’t be meaningfully challenged.

Now, here lies the dilemma of discovering where a child stands in regard to their potential for learning, and in figuring out how to best teach them.

Sometimes the best guides are the child’s peers who’ve recently mastered the skill — they can empathize at close range with the learner’s struggles and can relate the concept in kid-lingo that will resonate.

From the parent or teacher’s guidance, there are a number of strategies that can help a student succeed.

The guide can model expert behaviour — reading without hesitation or performing smooth parallel ski turns.

They can verbalize their thought pattern: “Now here’s a word I’ve never seen before, I’ll sound it out.” Or: “This is a steep run, I’ll do very wide turns to keep my speed in check.”

Another strategy for the teacher is to foresee an upcoming problem and let the student know in advance that a challenge is upcoming.

“There’s a word coming up with a silent k. Remember when we talked about silent letters?” Or: “”This run has a narrow section in the middle, how should we adjust our skiing to get through it?”

I think that a lot of us naturally guide our kids by these techniques, but the mastery lies in our slowing down and really attending to where the child is, and matching our requests to the child’s level. We need to teach to their needs rather to our hopes or competitive expectations.

How often have I told my daughter that she’ll never get “it” unless she practices, and then after giving up the battle find that she just does it one day on her own? Surely a little steady practice would have benefitted her overall drive, but would it have gotten her to the goal noticeably sooner? Amy Chua would say (definitely) yes, but realistically she got to the goal when she was ready to grasp it, when she was in her zone, and learning at that point isn’t rote, or test driven, it’s meaningful, personal, and a foundational block to build upon.

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