Friday, March 10, 2017

Helping, Coaching, and Celebrating Toddler Independence

The children of Cohort 12 continually blow me away - with their curiosity about the world, their openhearted embrace of their family, friends, and community, their ability to make each other (and their teacher) belly laugh on a regular basis, their sensitive attunement to one another's emotions, and their deeply-felt desire for independence.  These are children who want to figure things out for themselves, and want to do things for themselves!

I saw the seeds of this remarkable independence months ago, when, as infants, most of the children in the cohort didn't want help getting down the porch stairs to go outside.  Even if it took long minutes to figure out a way to safely crawl, walk, or slide down the steps, they were determined to do the work, and usually without any help from me.

Recently, I see the desire for independence strongly when the group is working on diapering, toileting, and getting clothes on and off.  RM figured out how to pull her feet all the way through her pant legs.  I saw NP watching her friend, and soon enough she was doing this work as well.  ZP first figured out how to pull the waistband of his pants up, and then became interested in putting his feet through the pant legs - often with RM cheering him on: "Pull, pull, pull!"  CF gets delight from seeing his toes popping through the bottom of the pant legs when he's gotten them all the way through ("Hi, toes!" we say together).

Sometimes while doing this work, the children make it extremely clear that my hands-on help is not required or desired.  My verbal offers of help when I see a foot stuck half-way through a pant leg is often met with a strong head shake or "No, no, no!"  When physical help is refused, I still offer verbal coaching ("You got your first leg all the way through!  Now you can open up your waistband really wide to get your other foot in."  "Now that you've pulled up the front of your pants, you can slide your thumbs around to find the back and pull that over your diaper as well!").  These children are hungry for information about how to do things for themselves, and eager to listen to hints I have to offer.

There are times when the desire to do tricky tasks independently leads to frustration.  Coat arms can be confusing, pants can get twisted, shirts are turned inside out, and zippers aren't easily mastered.  After allowing space for children to try it on their own and offering verbal coaching, my next move is to suggest we do it together "like a team."  This gives us the opportunity to slow down together ("When we look closely at your coat, we can see the hole for your arm is right there."  "I put this part of the zipper inside that part and then pull it down all the way.  Now you can zip it up!").  Offering only the help that is needed is a difficult balance to find, and I am always looking for that place where a child is doing what they can at their ability level, and getting a chance to try things that are a stretch.

Even the most independent toddlers at some points want things done for them.  This happens for our group most often when we are on the porch putting our shoes on to go outside.   It would be so much faster to go play if I would just put everyone's shoes on for them (or if I would let them go play with no shoes at all)!  When I'm offered a shoe and a foot is flopped into my lap, asking for me to just put the shoe on already, it's a great reminder for me to engage the children's spirit of independence and inquiry and find concrete ways to invite active participation.

It is remarkable, and fascinating, and so much fun to see these 16- to 19-month-olds at work, each fostering their own sense of independence.  It may take us a long time to get dressed, or get outside at this point in our group, but I know we are doing long term work building towards a time these children are doing it all for themselves.