I came across a research article that really made me think. It was entitled: “When Helping Hurts: Children Think Groups That Receive Help Are Less Smart.” In the study, preschool children were shown short video animations. In them, an ‘expert’ offered help to one group of children because it looked like they needed it. For the other group, the expert said, “Looks like you don’t need help. I’ll come watch you.” Children watching the video were asked how smart they thought the groups in the video were. They were significantly more likely to say the group that received help was less smart.
Intuitively, I knew this was true. I’ve worked with and observed enough children to know this is the way things go. But we know that helping someone can improve their success.
The study showed that helping can serve as a social stigma. Other children believe that, if you get help, you aren’t as smart. The helper-child relationship is inherently unequal. The helper is the authority. The child is seen as being unlikely to succeed on their own.
This is at the core of my passion for improving behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation in children. If they learn to self-regulate and make more decisions on their own, they won’t need us hovering so closely around them. Then other people won’t think they’re ‘less smart’.
But teachers, therapists, and assistants are hired to help students. What does this mean for day to day practices at home, in therapy settings, and in schools?
For starters, it’d help if everyone viewed themselves as coaches. Like coaches, we need to:
- Teach children foundation skills.
- Make sure each child has a basic understanding of the goals and skills needed in each activity.
- Practice step-by-step with the children.
- Let the children try out the skills on their own.
- Continue to encourage and remind from the sidelines.
- Allow the children to experience some failures. That’s part of learning.
- Help each child refine and advance their skills.
How could this work in traditional settings? At home, in therapy, and at school:
- Teach the children behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation skills. That’ll help them manage their own learning more effectively.
- Set up a rule that getting help is the smart thing to do. It means you want to learn more. Praise children when they ask for assistance.
- Don’t single out children who need help. Instead, work with them in private.
- In group settings, give help to all children. Every child can improve how they do things.
The coach mindset can help us make good strides in reducing the stigma many of our children experience. Teach foundation skills and then learn to stand back.