by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.
When my colleague, Deborah Silvis, and I decided to observe the conditions and approaches that fostered great emerging capabilities in young children (infants through 6 years old), we identified 7 inter-related keys that seemed to support the development of critical behaviors indicative of executive functions (organizing oneself to achieve a goal, Initiative, Concentration, Focus of Attention, Persistence, and Self-control). One of these keys was giving young children real, challenging work.
In this post, I will describe the our observations further regarding this key, identifying what the adults WERE doing when children were employing emerging executive functions, as well as common approaches to young children that the adults were NOT doing.
WHAT THE ADULTS DID THAT SEEMED TO PROMOTE EMERGING EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS:
- Ensure that there are plenty of materials and activities in the room that are challenging and allow for progressive learning.
- Give young children work that presents the optimal amount of challenge to promote learning, skill development, independence, and mastery.
- Be alert to a child’s interest in trying a new task or skill for himself.
- Use language with children that is educative (modeling appropriate, educated use of language) and not overly simplistic.
- Model a healthy attitude toward hard work.
WHAT THE ADULTS DID NOT DO— common adult approaches with young children which may interfere with developing great brain functioning and self-reliance:
- Offer materials and activities that are silly and uninteresting or otherwise fail to challenge them.
- Fill the environment with materials that do not allow for skill development.
- Use overly simplistic, “dumbed-down” language.
- Behave as though we feel “work” is a bad thing and we want to protect children from hard work that requires attention, concentration, and persistence.
- In an early childhood learning environment, dilute the curriculum to accommodate the youngest children at the expense of more advanced learners.
CONCLUSION. Everyone enjoys learning more when the task they are working on presents an optimal level of challenge—too little is boring and too much challenge is stressful.Therefore, it is a mistake to continually do for young children what they need to learn to do for themselves.
When adults give young children real work that is challenging, young children find their developmental work interesting and meaningful. They demonstrate great drive, initiative, and internal motivation to propel their development of skills and competencies forward. And they will build on that drive and initiative for the rest of their lives!
When we give young children challenging work, they persist at tasks and develop greater skills and competencies than their peers. They also demonstrate greater confidence in their ability to work things out and they choose increasingly challenging work. These experiences clearly help young children develop a foundation of attitudes and skills that will promote ongoing learning and development throughout their lives.
What can YOU do differently to give the young children you care for real work that is optimally challenging?