Q: Looking for experience and advice helping my daughter, Maya (5.5), through her frustration in learning new skills. We usually wait for her to ask to learn to do something, especially physical skills (ride a scooter, do a somersault, etc.) and shoe tying wasn’t really on our radar because her two favorite pairs of shoes don’t have laces. But her K teacher has declared a challenge to her class that whoever can learn to tie shoes by Jan. 11 will “win” a special lunch in the classroom with the teacher.
Maya is BOUND and determined to learn to do this to win the lunch. Even with skills she asks to learn, she is very easily frustrated in learning them. She tends to be a perfectionist (for lack of a better word) and wants things to come easily. She will almost immediately declare defeat, cry out, give up–or not give up, but half-heartedly keep “trying” even when I ask if she’d like to take a break and remind her that it won’t happen immediately, but everything takes a bit of practice.
Generally, I remind her of prior skills she’s learned (like a somersault) and say “Remember how hard that was the first time you tried it? And then you practiced and practiced, and now you can do them easily!” Along those lines.
I will admit I can get frustrated with her frustration, because I just simply don’t know what to say to make it better. And I know I can’t make it better for her, but can I help her through this so she doesn’t immediately feel defeated when she doesn’t get something on the first try?
A: Thank you for your question–tying your shoelaces is one of those developmental milestones that we all had to go through as children. It can be very stressful and difficult because it takes a lot of fine-motor dexterity, of which your daughter may just not be ready for at this time. My son is in first grade and his teacher puts “practice tying shoes” on the homework sheet twice a week so clearly a lot of kids are still working on it.
I would try scaffolding the shoe-tying learning. Scaffolding means simple to start with the basic first part and let her master that then add on the next part. But before you start I would get a quick gauge on her fine motor development (fine motor means strength and dexterity of small movements like fingers): is she able play with play-doh and make small things with it? Can she wrap rubber bands around something easily? Can she do buttons on her shirt? Once you have an idea of the scope of her abilities, the first step for her to master would be to simply cross the laces. Don’t forget to really show her the basics: proper hand position, which lace goes on top, etc. Then give her ample time to practice this first step. Once she is doing that well, then show her which lace goes through the hole and from what direction. Then practice that over and over again. Keep going like that until she’s tying laces on her own. Like everything else, she will do it when she’s ready all you can do is be patient, present, and set the conditions for her to rise to the occasion.
In terms of her frustration, I would try just letting her vent and not inserting a kind but misplaced “its ok” or “it doesn’t really matter” or anything. Silence and your physical presence will give her a safe container for her to feel her feelings and you want her to know that you are her safe space to be frustrated (or any emotion). Just stay near her and offer to give her space if she needs it (you can ask: “do you want me to stay here or do you want a little space?”). I’m sure just you near will be comforting enough. Often adult words just add to the intensity of the stressful situation. When she does start ‘getting it’ I would simply acknowledge that she got that part, not with any emphasis on your emotions (likely proud) so that your feelings about the shoe-tying don’t become part of her stress, even if they are “positive”. That little kindergartener has enough on her plate with all this shoe-tying business, managing your ups and downs should not be her job.
Either way, my final thought is how messed up it is for the teacher to make this into a competition? I don’t think it would be out of line to say something to the teacher especially with the prize being attention from an adult. The kids who tie early will be proud enough and don’t need a prize–in fact, it is likely the ones who don’t tie early who would benefit with some extra encouragement and attention from an adult.
© 2018: Nurture: Family Education & Guidance, Emily R. Rittenberg, M.Ed., NCC
Emily can be reached for private consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 585-420-8838.