Where Learning Happens

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” – Gail Sheehy

Some of the best advice I ever heard of a pediatrician giving a parent was, “It’s good for him to do some things that are uncomfortable for him.” This advice was given in relation to a young child feeling uneasy about a new experience. Note that the advice of the pediatrician did not suggest that the child should face his discomfort alone, without empathy, or be so uncomfortable as to suffer. But that mild discomfort of doing something new, something unpredictable, is almost always a source of growth. It’s often in that discomfort that the best kind of learning happens.

Let me tell you about my young friend, C. She is twelve months old and not yet walking, but she crawls with great speed. Sometimes she shuffles forward on her knees, sometimes she stands and “cruises,” holding on to the low counter. C. is a highly competent mobile infant who, when self-motivated, can move with ease from one place or position to another. Sometimes, however, C. longs to be rescued. When rescue fails to materialize, C. can become quite dramatic. In a word, she screams.

The other day, C. was outside and I was inside. She was playing at a water table with some peers, splashing and cruising along the edge. Her primary caregiver needed to take a break and the person who came to give her the break was a stranger to C. This made C. nervous, so she began to cry. I heard her, understood the cause, and opened the door. “C,” I called, “would you like to come inside for a little while?” When she saw me, she reached her arms out towards me. “Come on over,” I encouraged, “I’m right here waiting for you.” She wouldn’t come. She screamed intermittently instead. “I hear you, C. You’re asking me to come and pick you up. But I’m asking you to come over here to me so I can do it,” I said. Now, the caregiver who was there covering for C’s primary caregiver had moved away, so she was not blocking C. from coming towards me or interfering with our interaction in any way. She asked, “Do you want me to pick you up and take you to Jenn?” and C. shook her head, shrieked, and waved the caregiver away with one arm.

C. continued to scream for some time. I know her well enough to recognize that she was mad. It made her mad that I was not going to go to her and pick her up. “You’re really mad that I’m not coming to you,” I said. “I’m waiting for you right here. Will you please come to me?” I was sitting on the floor just inside the door and I reached out out my arms, then signed, “Come-here.” C. frowned, moved forward half an inch, then stopped and screamed again.

While we were discussing the situation, several preschool teachers were passing by our classroom and yard. Each one, without fail, was drawn close by C’s screams and asked, “Can I help her?” I would explain that I was waiting for C. to come over to me so that I could hold her. “Let me get her for you,” several teachers said, and moved to open the gate to our yard. I stopped them. “Thank you, but C. can come to me when she’s ready,” I said. They all were visibly taken aback (“She’s so upset!” they all observed), but for me, as a teacher, this was a learning moment. I wanted C. to realize that she doesn’t need rescue. She doesn’t need to wait for someone to come and get her when she’s uncomfortable. She is capable of moving her body and I want her to know it.

I wanted pretty badly to go and pick C. up, cuddle her close to me, kiss her all over, and tell her that everything was okay. It’s not easy to see babies in distress. I was perhaps even more uncomfortable in this moment than C. herself, as I second-guessed my plan to “make” her come to me on her own, but I worked to project an aura of calm reassurance as I talked her through the experience. As I talked to her, the other children were gathering around, watching. “C,” I said, “you could crawl over to me. I’m right here. I’m going to stay right here close to you.” When I mentioned crawling, a few of my walking infants dropped to all fours and crawled between C. and myself. “Look,” I said, “L. is showing you how she can crawl just like you do.” C. watched quietly, even smiled, then resumed screaming. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seemed an eternity, but was actually less than fifteen minutes, all told. In the end, C. sighed a heavy sigh, then crawled quickly to me and climbed into my lap, screams silenced. I hugged her. “You crawled to me on your own and now I can hold you,” I said. She leaned back against me and we sat that way for a little while, both of us enjoying the quiet.

Did C. stop screaming for rescue that day, forever? Nope. A similar scene plays out a few times a week, but increasingly less often now. C. is becoming even more competent in her movement. I still second-guess my choices, but with or without me, she’s growing.

“It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety.” – Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Another child, B., likes to climb to modest heights in both our indoor and outdoor space and then shriek to be rescued. If caregivers come close to her, she’ll leap recklessly from where she has climbed, so we began to keep our distance a few months ago, choosing to talk her down instead. B. also does this with her parents at the park. It became something of a game for them when she first began to want to climb, and an unfortunate pattern developed. They weren’t sure what to do about it, but complained of her recklessness. I suggested that we all work together to help B. discover a sense of herself in space and to tune in to her own abilities to navigate tricky situations. (If B. was not safe, we would of course assist her immediately.)

In the classroom, B. teetered atop a platform, shrieking and leaning towards her caregiver, who sat calmly a few feet away. “Will you come back down the steps or the slide?” she asked. B. looked to the left (steps!) and then the right (slide!) and then cried, looking at her caregiver. “You can come back down, B.,” her caregiver assured her, “You can sit down and go to the slide,” she pointed to the slide. B. looked to her right again, uncertain, then fussed some more. “If it seems too high, you could sit down,” her caregiver suggested. B. repeated, “Sit.” “Yes, you could sit down,” her caregiver said again. B. sat, then scooted towards the slide. “It looks like you will come down the slide,” her caregiver observed. B. briefly fussed again, reaching towards her caregiver, who moved closer to the bottom of the slide. “I’m right here, waiting for you,” her caregiver told B. B. then slid down the slide and clapped for herself at the bottom. “You came down the slide,” her caregiver said with a smile.

“… by stretching yourself beyond your perceived level of confidence you accelerate your development of competence.” –Michael J. Gelb

It can be hard to determine when to help children, when to support or encourage them, and when to rescue them. It’s not always a black and white, right or wrong issue. It’s a delicate matter of careful observation, knowledge of the individual, and timing. In my experience, it’s uncomfortable for adults. Children aren’t the only ones learning and growing in these moments. At the end of the day, these are often the moments that I reflect back on — these moments of screams and shrieks and occasional tears. I always wonder if I made the right choices, providing the correct balance of support, autonomy, freedom, and assistance. Do my infants and toddlers believe in their own competence, as I believe in them? Not every day. Not every one of them. Not yet. But often enough and enough of them to make me believe that we’re moving in the right direction.

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One thought on “Where Learning Happens

  1. […] feeling frustrated because she is working to roll over and she hasn’t gone that way before. We are giving her time.” Not to mention that this baby, as an individual, is very wary of people she does not know […]

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