Cultivating a Sense of Competence

Thinking about Competence illustr 001

How can the sun always be on fire? Where does the fire come from?

asks E, my five year old son.

I don’t know, I say. Good question.

Papa Dave will know. He’s tall so he knows everything, asserts E.

–          Conversation at our house last week

At all ages and stages, kids admire and desire competence. Particularly as they enter the middle school years, 10-14, figuring out what they can do and what their interests are establishes the basis for their social and academic life. It can define a friend group and sometimes seals the perception of who a student is with his teachers. Is he a straight “A” student? Does she excel at electronics? Is he a skJason Band Pictureilled soccer player? My husband claims that competence in music in high school band was primarily responsible for pulling him out of the shyness of his middle school years.

One of the most incredible aspects of childhood is that a child can dream about becoming literally just about anything they want to be. Children spend much of their time listening to the adults and children around them reflect back to them who they are. This grows their self-awareness. “Look at you swim. Wow! You’re a fish!” These mirror reflections become what children begin to say about themselves. They are creating who they are. After autonomy and belonging (discussed in the last two articles), the third way people are intrinsically motivated is through a sense of competence.[i] This is not an objective fact, but more a subjective feeling that one is capable and perceived by others as capable.[ii] This motivation is a building block of development itself since children are naturally compelled to learn the ways of “being big” – tying shoes, zipping up a jacket, reciting the alphabet, adding numbers and establishing friendships.

Every kid needs to demonstrate competence. Competence means “adequacy or the possession of required skill, knowledge or qualification.”[iii] Competence is not excellence. In order to be considered competent, for example, a child does not need to be the state champion speller. They could just do well in spelling that week. Children are looking to you, as a parent or educator, to help them understand what they can feel competent in. Here are some thoughts on how you can encourage your child to feel a sense of competence.

Allow for trial and error. Encourage your child to take healthy risks and stand back as they try. If they fail, encourage them to keep practicing. Thomas Edison conducted 9,990 different experiments in order to invent the electric light. Professional baseball players at bat miss more times than they make hits. If a player is missing hits 70% of the time (making hits 30%), he’s considered a leader.

Articulate specific strengths using “I notice…” “I notice that you are carefully looking at that bowl of fruit and are able to draw what you see.” Generic statements won’t help and sometimes too much “good job”-ing can have an opposite effect. Using general praise can actually decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem.[iv]

Appreciate progress. Point out small steps along the way toward mastery. Don’t wait until they can write their entire name in a straight line perfectly or play a full concerto. If they have been working hard and have been able to play one line of music well, call out that first step as progress toward their goal. Not only will you be providing encouragement for them to dig into the work ahead, but also you will be teaching them about how to pursue a long range goal.

Be aware of the messages your actions send. If you step in and perfect something (a drawing, the organization of toys or the building of a block tower) that is your child’s creation, you can inadvertently send the message that what she did is not good enough. Be sure that creations of your children are solely their own creations, messy and imperfect as they may be.

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What do you do if your child gets frustrated and upset when trying a new skill? Children can put tremendous pressure on themselves or feel outside pressure bearing down when they are trying to learn a new skill. That kind of pressure will work against their desire to keep trying as they feel a sense of urgency and frustration. Margaret Berry Wilson offers some helpful tips in the article “When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment”[v] and I’ve added on to her suggestions:

  • Stay calm yourself or cool yourself down if you can feel your own temperature gauge rising.
  • Comfort a child who is deeply upset. There will be no moving forward with a child who is truly distressed. Work on calming down the child first. Don’t minimize or try to talk away the upset.
  • Take a break. Get a snack. Take a walk. Change the environment to help cool the frustration.
  • Remind and redirect in a calm voice. Remind your child that it takes time and practice to master a skill. If you can, try out together some other aspect of the skill mastery other than the exact task she was working on when she got frustrated. If she cannot write the letter “R,” practice other letters she can write for a while to regain her sense of accomplishment and ability.
  • Calmly guide your child toward a solution. Ask, “Are there other ways you might try to do this?” or “How many ideas can we come up with to make another attempt?”
  • Break down the task into smaller pieces. Sometimes children try to tackle a much bigger task than they could possibly master in a reasonable timeframe. See if you can’t break down the task into smaller pieces and recognize when those smaller pieces are mastered.
  • Point out what she can do and how she came to master that skill. Parents will sometimes hear an impassioned “I can’t do it. I can’t do it!” After calming down and changing the environment, when you are ready to return to the task, tell her a story about how she mastered a skill in the past that required some practice and patience.

Helping your children cultivate a sense of competence can provide the confidence they need to pursue new goals. It can provide a context for developing friendships. And it can serve as a springboard of resilience as challenges arise and your children have experienced the practice of meeting a challenge with hard work, persistence and the sense of accomplishment that comes with mastery.

For more, check out the classic story with beautiful, updated illustrations and reinforce the idea that with hard work and determination, you can gain a sense of competence.

Piper, Watty. & Long, Loren (Illus.) (2005). The little engine that could. New York: Philomel Books.


[i] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.  http://mmrg.pbworks.com/f/Ryan,+Deci+00.pdf

[ii] Wagner, F.R., & Morse, J.J. (1975). A measure of individual sense of competence. Psychological Reports, 36, 451-459.

[iii] Dictionary.com Retrieved April 11, 2013. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/competence?s=t

[iv] Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

[v] Wilson, M.B. (2013). When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment. In Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More…; Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

5 Comments on “Cultivating a Sense of Competence

  1. Jen – The illustration really captures all the possibilities that kids puzzle over. I remember infinite possibilities – long ago. It’s great but also very daunting. People used to tell me that I could do anything that I wanted and I remember thinking ” Do I have to?” What a challenge – sometimes overwhelming. Good article. Love the intro. Love, Maaaaaaaa On Apr 11, 2013, at 9:15 PM, confident parents confident kids wrote:

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