Fostering Competence for Success: Encouraging Responsibility in Children
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Nia and Caleb crouch together, each holding a small plastic watering can. Ms. Marva has just lifted a tray of plants from a shelf and placed it on the floor where the children can help her pick off the dead leaves and water the containers. Nia nudges Caleb with her elbow, pleading as he grabs one of the plants, “But I want to do that one.”
Ms. Marva helps Nia and Caleb make a plan, asking, “What should we do so you both can water?” Caleb answers, “I can water these ones,” and points to a few of the plants closest to him. Ms. Marva responds, “Yes, you can water those plants.” Nia says, “Okay. I can water the stripey ones.” Ms. Marva agrees: “You can water the plants with the striped leaves. That is a good plan.”
There are many reasons why teachers do not transfer responsibility to children. Often, they are pressed for time and simply want to engage children in the next activity (Garrity & Longstreth 2016). Teachers may mistake compliance (doing what one is told) with cooperation (a self-directed choice) (Pratt, Lipscomb, & McClelland 2016). Beliefs about obedience may lead to missed opportunities for supporting children’s autonomy (Suizzo, Tedford, & McManus 2019). Perceptions that children can independently control their behavior may prevent teachers from teaching strategies for responsibility (Yoder & Williford 2019). To adapt children’s behavior, teachers may increase control or use reactive approaches rather than build children’s skills proactively (Garrity et al. 2016).
While it may seem appropriate to use a polite demand—“Nia, you can water that plant. Caleb, you can water that one”—this inadvertently places responsibility for the thinking process and problem solving on the teacher. Instead, in the opening vignette, Ms. Marva makes it a priority to put the children in charge of their own thinking and decision making by transferring responsibility for their actions to them.
Self-directed behavior is the ability to make independent decisions and carry them out. Children who are self-directed are better able to handle the social and learning expectations of the classroom and engage more deeply in learning (Williford et al. 2013). Children who are active agents in making decisions and in directing their learning have confidence in their capacity to make things happen (Alper & McGregor 2015). Over time, and with the sensitive encouragement of teachers, they take increasing responsibility for themselves and contribute to the success of others.
Self-direction relies on inhibitory control, which includes the ability to resist distractions and think before acting (Neitzel 2018). This is seen when a child resists the urge to poke a classmate or touch someone else’s belongings. The child must resist a current desire in order to achieve another less relevant need, request, or goal. An equally important aspect of self-direction is the mental flexibility required to anticipate needs, switch gears or strategies, and engage purposefully in a task or goal (Ackerman & Friedman-Krauss 2017). We see this when children must leave an absorbing game of solitary play in order to join a group activity. They first must notice what needs to be done—shift attention from what they are doing—and then get started and follow through on a new task. That is a multistep, complex responsibility! Sometimes, children need to coordinate their efforts with the actions of others, such as cooperating during cleanup. Strengthening these skills is a unique priority in early childhood.
Moments that occur during your everyday classroom routines, such as transitions, self-care routines, mealtimes, and teaching interactions, offer many meaningful opportunities to build responsibility in children. The following strategies will foster increasing self-responsibility and also promote positive conversation and shared enjoyment.
Setting Up for Success
“It’s time to go outside,” Ms. Hasan says. “What kind of day is it today?”
The children answer, “It’s a cold day!” Ms. Hasan responds, “Brrrr! What should we put on first—our coats or our mittens?”
The children think for a moment and then Sarina replies, “Our coats!” Ms. Hasan prompts, “Why? What would happen if we put on our mittens first?” The children laugh and say, “Our mittens would make our arms get stuck!” Ms. Hasan laughs too. “That is good thinking. Our hands need to fit through our sleeves.”
Ms. Hasan knows how to make transitions fun by talking about the steps needed before children begin an activity. She invites them to think with her before they get dressed to go outside. Taking time to teach and practice skills increases cooperation. Ms. Hasan transfers responsibility to the children by scaffolding their participation and supporting their competence (Leith, Yuill, & Pike 2018). Talking through necessary steps prepares the children for success.
Ms. Hasan creates a shared can-do atmosphere in the classroom. She engages active thinking as she helps the children discuss challenges and needs: “I can see you feel like running. We can run in a few minutes when we go out for recess” and “I notice it is hard to carry the papers to the basket. Will it help to bring the basket over to you?” By making children partners in the preparation process, Ms. Hasan engages their thinking and actions.
Building Body Awareness
It is the beginning of reading time. The children drop down onto the carpet, wiggling and laughing. Ms. Daniels says, “Let’s find our bodies. Where are your hands? Look for your feet.” The children locate their hands and feet. Ms. Daniels smiles and adds, “Now you are ready. Let’s take a big breath together and focus our brains.” Ms. Daniels begins to read. The children look and listen attentively, eager to hear Peter’s Chair, by Ezra Jack Keats.
Ms. Daniels’s children are just like all children—full of energy and in need of assistance with transitions. She encourages them to become aware of and locate their bodies in space and to regulate their breathing (White 2013). She is thoughtful about the best way to guide them, ensuring success.
Children want and need private spaces to think, imagine, and play. They may need to withdraw from feeling overstimulated or find a space in which to be quiet. The use of a place mat for playdough, individual pillows for reading, or floor mats to engage in puzzle work can provide a protected area. Individual dish tubs for molding materials or playing with water can scaffold constructive solitary play. Natural physical boundaries remind children to respect the work, concentration, and feelings of themselves and others (Koralek 2010). Awareness of the body and of spaces plays an important role in self-management.
Asking Instead of Telling
The children are picking up toys before Ms. Kamila begins a group math activity. Madison and Ava laugh as they run over to the hat bin. Ava says, “I am the teacher” and pulls out a pair of plastic eyeglasses from the bin. Ms. Kamila gently asks, “Where do the glasses go before we begin our math activity?” Ava thinks for a moment before putting the glasses back in the basket with the hats and scarves.
One of the most effective ways to build children’s responsibility is to ask a question instead of telling a child what to do. Replace straightforward directions such as, “Please put the puzzles on the shelf,” with a question, like, “Where do the puzzles go?” Instead of “Get down from the chair,” invite self-directed thinking with, “How can you be safe?” or “Where do your feet go?”
While demands and requests can be kind and respectful, they often cause teachers to revisit the same issues over and over, for example: “Robert, please hang up your coat” or “Maddie, please stop touching Vern.” Children rely on the teacher to ensure that a coat is hung up or a dispute is resolved. Children may comply because they have been told to do something; however, compliance is different than self-direction. With ongoing support, children learn and take pride in personal management skills.
When we ask children, “What do you need to do when you come into the room?” it helps them to notice a need, to shift their attention, and to activate personal responsibility. By asking, we help children use self-chosen thinking strategies to solve problems. Our prompts also model the kinds of questions children can ask themselves when they need to figure out something or solve a problem independently. We want to build inner self-talk that says, “Where does my coat go?,” “What should I do next?,” or “What is a good solution?”
Narrating What Works
George is busy pushing around a toy car and making a motor sound. When he notices a tall block tower in front of him, he pauses, then makes a shrill screeching sound as he diverts the car to the left of it. Ms. Lydia, who has been observing George, smiles and says, “You drove around Carlos’s tower without bumping it. Thank you for protecting his work space.”
Verbalizing the steps or strategies a child has used to be successful draws attention to what works—and why. It models self-regulatory speech that has a positive impact on planning, memory, and attention (Aziz, Fletcher, & Bayliss 2016). Ms. Lydia wants to highlight the restraint George has demonstrated and reinforce that resisting the urge to plow into the tower mattered very much to Carlos. Active narration increases awareness of children’s surroundings and helps them become self-directed in making decisions (Wallace, Sung, & Williams 2014).
Ask children to tell you what they did to be successful: “What three steps did you use to get ready for lunch?” Or “What did you tell yourself that helped you calm down?” When children say the steps out loud, they practice the kind of self-talk that keeps behavior on track (Kuvalja, Verma, & Whitebread 2012). They are more likely to remember effective strategies to use next time.
Teach and model self-talk. Instead of, “Look where you are going” say, “Tell your feet where to go.” Remind children to say, “I can stop myself” or “I can steer my body.” When children understand that they can steer their bodies, they may hold an imaginary steering wheel as they guide themselves to a waiting activity.
Self-talk can be modeled: ask, “What do I need?,” “What are my choices?,” or “What should I do next?” You can use the following prompt before the beginning of an activity: “What should we do first? What are our choices?” Soon, children will begin to ask you these questions and will use them to guide their own decisions.
Put Children in Charge
Carter pokes Malik with his elbow as the two boys carry an armload of cars and trucks over to the table. Malik trips and falls into Carter, laughing as they roll over onto the floor. Mr. Perry prompts, “What is a good way to finish this project?” Carter responds, “We can put the cars into a bucket and then carry them over.” After just a few moments of work, the boys are engaged in arranging their road pieces and vehicles at the table.
Mr. Perry puts children in charge of problem solving. He wants to help them think about strategies that work to solve problems and accomplish their goals (Moreno, Schwayder, & Friedman 2016). Rather than focus on what is not working, he encourages them to think of a solution for themselves.
When children face a challenge, prompt independent thinking: “We are taking a lot of time to get ready for lunch. What can we do to make this work better?” or “We didn’t handle this transition very well. What do you think we can do instead?” Asking children to solve their own problems transfers the responsibility for creating constructive solutions to them. This approach takes a few minutes up front, but it saves a great deal of time as children learn to negotiate and brainstorm ideas.
Activate Awareness of Others
Ms. Rocha needs the children to get ready for lunch. She notices the hard work that has been accomplished in the construction area by Padma and Reagan and says to Padma, “You and Reagan built a complicated skyscraper. Would you like to take a photo before you take it down or save it to work on later?” Padma and Reagan decide to take a photo and are excited to take the picture by themselves. Ms. Rocha says, “We can print and hang your photo in our gallery.”
There is a remarkable difference in the way children react when adults respond to them with sensitivity (Mortensen & Barnett 2018). Children are often deeply absorbed in play when they are asked to shift gears to another activity. It helps to affirm their experience before asking them to shift their attention. Honoring the girls’ perspective pays off for Ms. Rocha, as Padma and Reagan willingly take responsibility to get ready for lunch. Sensitivity affirms their feelings, perspectives, and experiences.
Encourage awareness and sensitivity in children: “Sara needs help with her straw” or “Lela looks tired.” For children to respond appropriately, they must first notice the needs of others.
In addition, connect positive choices to benefits: “It feels good to know where the scissors and tape are the next time you need them for an art project” or “It feels good to help our classmates.” Highlighting the impact of choices on self and others increases awareness and responsiveness.
Activating Lasting Benefits
Ms. Diaz smiles at Jared’s father and says, “When I asked Jared to help us decide the best way to organize the plants, he decided to put the shorter pots by the window so that they could get more sun. Isn’t it great that he considered the situation from the plant’s point of view?” To Ariana’s mother, Ms. Diaz says, “When I asked Ariana to choose a game to play, she decided to let the children vote. I want to tell you how well she organized the activity.”
Nurturing responsibility in children can open meaningful conversations with families about children’s strengths and developing skills. Ms. Diaz knows that when she shares positive experiences, it inspires family support for emerging skills. A strengths-based approach invites families to be part of encouraging and celebrating children’s learning.
Fostering competence also has lasting benefits for children. They take pride in their successes and want to take charge of their ideas, energy, and choices. They gain confidence in their growing ability to make healthy and constructive decisions. They become more sensitive to the needs of others and enjoy the pleasure of mutual cooperation.
There is a lasting benefit to teachers as well. The effective use of strategies to foster responsibility allows you to learn from children. When you ask questions and listen carefully to children’s answers and explanations, you will understand more about how they think and what motivates their behavior. You will be able to identify common misunderstandings and become more sensitive to their need for support and encouragement. In this way, you will be more responsive and better able to make the most of opportunities to scaffold children’s growing confidence and emerging responsibility.
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Photographs: © Getty Images
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Marie Masterson, PhD, is the director of quality assessment at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership. She holds a doctorate in early childhood education, is a licensed teacher, and is a national speaker, child behavior expert, and author of multiple books and articles that address research-based, practical skills for behavior guidance, high-quality teaching, family child care, leadership, and parenting. Marie provides content expertise and consultation to organizations involved in quality improvement and leadership development.
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