How I helped a child overcome fear by not helping

Jarrod Green, early childhood educator and author of I’m OK! Building Resilience through Physical Play, shares a personal experience helping one of his littles overcome fear, and gain confidence through self-help.

*Names have been changed to protect the brave.

Sliding Towards Resilience by Jarrod Green

“Augh! Aaaaaugh!”

up-at-the-slide-1479652-638x428I turned around to see Calvin*, a three-year-old in my class, hollering from the top of the
slide. The slide was yellow and blue plastic, no more than three feet high. I could see, though, that Calvin had gotten stuck at the top, with one leg down the slide and the other down the steps. He was quickly turning red and nearing tears, and I knew it was an important moment for his learning.

Physical risk-taking is a powerful opportunity for young children to develop a wide range of skills that are difficult to build in other contexts. By trying out activities that push the limits of their physical abilities, children build self-knowledge, self-regulation, self-confidence, and self-help skills; by intervening thoughtfully, teachers can nurture this learning. A teacher’s response to a child’s moment of uncertainty can determine whether the child learns harmful lessons (for instance, “Trying is scary” or “I’m not safe here”) or helpful ones (like “I can take care of myself” or “I can solve problems even when I’m scared”).

As I walked toward Calvin I quickly reflected on what I knew about him and some possible goals for this moment. He was a child who tended to display a nervous energy, often sticking close to familiar activities and situations. Playing on the slide with no adult nearby was a big step for him, and I wanted to make sure that the experience remained positive. He was also a child who tended to get very upset about small frustrations, and we had been working with him to feel confident shrugging off “little problems” and taking steps to fix “big problems.” Getting stuck at the top of the slide looked like a legitimate reason to get upset, but I wanted to make sure he would feel like a successful problem-solver at the end of it.

“Hey Calvin!” I said, trying to find a tone somewhere between empathetic concern and relaxed confidence. “You sound upset. What’s up?”

“I can’t get down!” he cried, and he threw his arms and his upper body towards me, clearly asking with his gestures to be lifted down. I stopped just beyond his arms’ reach.

“It looks like you’re stuck with one leg on each side, and you’re feeling frustrated,” I observed. “But I’ve seen you go up and down this slide so many times today! I know you can get down.”

“I can’t! Help!” He reached for me again, straining over the edge of the slide.

I squatted to put my face at his level. “I will help you,” I said. “I will help you climb down. You are strong, and you are a good climber, and you can climb down.”

“No!” he cried. He was getting more upset.

“Let’s take a slow breath together,” I suggested. Mindfulness skills like breathing are a core practice at the Children’s Community School, and familiar to every child we teach. “Take a breath in your nose. Ready? Yes, there you go. Let’s do another one, in your nose. Good! Calvin, I promise I will not let you fall. I will stay here and help you climb down, because I know you can do it. Are you ready to climb down now?”

“No,” he said sadly, but his body was a little less tense and he started to look around at his situation.

After a few moments, seeing that he didn’t know how to start, I suggested, “How about you put your hands on the sides, right here?” Over the course of several laborious minutes I coached him all the way down the slide. “Can you bend your knee? That’s it! Put your foot here. I’ve got my hands behind you, I promise you won’t fall.” Calvin shuddered and breathed hard, but he kept moving until both feet were on the ground.

He looked down, then up at me. “I did it!”

“Calvin, you did it!” I said as we exchanged a high five. “You were stuck and you were scared, but you worked hard and got yourself down. No one lifted you, and no one climbed for you—you did it yourself! You really know how to take care of yourself, don’t you?”

Or rather, I meant to say all that. But I never got the chance, because the moment we high-fived Calvin practically ran back up the steps of the slide, and proceeded to slide down five times in a row without pausing for breath.

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