How to Stop Helping your Preschooler in Four Steps

As Montessori guides, one of our favourite pieces of advice for parents is to offer children as little help as possible. 

I know, we're asking a lot here.

Let me tell you how hard it is bite your tongue, sit on your hands, and pretend you don't see your child making a mistake and struggling.

It is even harder to find that point of just hard enough, without the task becoming too easy or too frustrating. This is the challenge.  We must continue to facilitate opportunities where our children are working on the very edge of their abilities and growing their skills.  In adults, we often recognize this point as “feel the burn” or “push through the pain”

It's the struggle that causes the learning and growth we wish for our children. 

The least amount of help needed will change as your child gets older, and will also fluctuate from moment to moment. If your child is hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, she will need more of your support and help. If she has built up her confidence and is in deep concentration, she may try harder than usual to complete her task. You can tell the difference by carefully watching your child, listening to what she says, and knowing what she is currently capable of (see step three below).

True independence is a mixture of the ability to problem solve and the skills/tools to make your goal a reality. It’s knowing how and when to ask for help in meeting a goal. It's these independent skills that will lead to self-confidence, self-reliance, and responsibility.  

So, here's how to help your preschooler solve problems, be persistent, and own her choices by offering as little help as possible. 

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Create environmental controls, limits, and expectations to provide independence

  • Keep off-limit items out of sight and out of reach
  • Only offer healthy things to eat
  • Have interesting, purposeful, challenging activities available for your child.
  • Set clear expectations about everything you can- bedtime routines, visiting parks, greeting guests, playing with siblings, etc.
  • Offer limited choices of when, where, or how a mandatory activity gets done: “Do you want a bath first or to brush your teeth first?”

 

Teach by modeling, not correcting

  • Model and provide lessons on “how tos” (brush your teeth, say excuse me, get a drink) Be prepared to repeat these many times, and don't expect perfection.
  • “Do as I do, and as I say”. Make sure your own actions and words are in line with what you expect from your child.
  • Use clear, positive language. “We walk in the house. You can run outside.”
  • Be mindful of how you use your power as an adult. It's easy to command, force, punish, bribe, pick-up, and swiftly move a child, but often this is not the best action for building self-regulation. Remember your role is to guide your child to make the right choice on her own. And, cut yourself a break when you're tired, angry, or just forget.
  • Ask questions. This puts the problem solving power back on your child. Where can you look for that? What else might work? Who could you talk to at lunch? When did you see it last? How will you solve this problem?

 

Observe. What skill is your child missing to complete the task on her own?

  • You might be able to bring her attention to this (like if she needs to rotate a puzzle piece to get it to fit), or you might offer help (like if she's not strong enough yet to pull open the door).
  • Ask “May I show you?” if she's missing something, or “Are you asking for this?” if she doesn't have the words. Sometimes you might take on the role of narrator: “Hmm, that looks like it surprised you when you fell out of the chair. You were leaning backward so far, and then you fell over.”
  • Take note of your child's behaviour and try to figure out what she might be trying to accomplish.

 

Create time and tools for your child and yourself to be successful

  • Allow plenty of time in your child's day, especially if you are implementing anything new (like the ideas from this article!)
  • Respond to the cause of behavior Keep in mind the big picture, understand your child is doing the best she can with what skills she has in that moment, and be as respectful as possible.
  • Be consistent. Children need clear boundaries, and if you don't provide them, they will push until they find your edge. The more consistent your are at this age, the easier everything will be. Trust me.
  • Prepare your space, mind, and tools. It's hard to operate if you are constantly looking for things, stressed out, or at a loss for how to react to common situations.

 

About Leanne Gray, M.Ed

About the author

Leanne Gray, M.Ed has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. 

She's on a mission to raise a generation of kind, confident, responsible children