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Thursday, February 11, 2016

When curiosity becomes an enemy of a child, what can you do?

I had presumed that 'fear of failing' is visible late in Higher secondary school and later ages. I was therefore surprised, when i noticed in young children of 3-4 years age in a Montessori.

Every child has a invisible 'challenge zone'. If the new task is 'below' the challenge zone, the child is bored. This is why child dumps a toy soon after he buys it. If the task is 'above' the challenge zone, the child faces the fear of failing in it. His response to this fear 'determines' his speed of learning.  If he withdraws, his learning stops for the time being. If he engages with the activity despite failing, he will learn to do it sooner or later. When he responds to one such difficulty by withdrawing himself, it does not matter perhaps. But when he responds to these new tasks - as he encounters them again by again - by repeatedly withdrawing from them, he sets up a pattern that is harmful for his learning.

Repeated response to a new task therefore determines the child's speed and extent of learning. Child's curiosity always drives him towards new tasks and objects. But his ability to negotiate this 'challenge zone' influences his ability to learn. If he fails to negotiate it, he stops taking new tasks which in turn stops his learning. If he manages to negotiate it, he keeps on stretching himself and continues to learn. For a child, who is not able to negotiate this challenge zone, Curiosity becomes his enemy. 

Imagine a child for whom Curiosity has become his/her enemy. For such a child new activity, instead of excitement, generates anxiety in him. Instead of engaging in new activity, he discovers new excuses every day to avoid new task. Some children even boast of activities that they claim to have done earlier. Instead of engaging with friends who explore, he finds friends who do the same activity again and again. Besides expending his 'physical energy', such games and activity offer him little help in learning. When I met a 3-year old child, who refused to remove 'training wheels' of his bicycle, because he found it 'challenging' to balance without those wheels, I felt sad. If you meet such a child, you will do your best to help your child nurture his curiosity.

What can you do in helping your child nurture his Curiosity?

These seven rules will help you:

First, give activities that are just above the challenge zone of your child. Many parents, in the haste to help their child grow faster, offer new activities which are way beyond their challenge zone. For such parents, small exposure is better than no exposure. When a child is offered an activity beyond his challenge zone, World map for instance for a child of 4 years, he learns nothing from the activity. He just repeats the steps mechanically and tends to memorise it by rote. Infact, it gives him a false impression of knowing more than he knows.

If you are not sure about the activity to offer to your child, consult your Montessori teacher or use a Montessori book.

Second, your child is unique. Please do not assume that a difficult task for one child will be difficult for your child.

A child will find a seemingly simple task difficult, and the reverse. For instance, N ( One  child in Sapience Montessori) found that remembering color names like red, blue and yellow was so difficult for him that he started saying "I do not want to come to Montessori'.  Another child H, found it difficult to match cylinders with the holes in the block, if the cylinders were kept at a distance of 10 feet. She could match them when they were kept closer to each other. She cried when reminded to do that activity.

Not every child behaves in the same way when a new activity is introduced. Some children, when introduced to a new activity, will take long time to engage in it. Some do it immediately. For instance, one child in Sapience takes up new activity next day, while another girl child takes it after a week.

Third, give the child enough space and time to overcome his/her fear of failing

For instance, N ( the child mentioned above ) became so anxious that he did not take any activity for 3 weeks. In Montessori, this cushion is provided to the child to accept his fear and deal with it. On the other hand, H ( the girl child mentioned above) overcome her fear by talking to herself for a month. She kept on telling herself that " I will be able to perform the activity if I do the activity again and again'.

Fourth, do not help the child to perform the new activity.

Initially, you may show your child how to do the activity by doing it yourself. But, once you show it, never help the child while he is doing it. Remember, he has to go through his feelings of inadequacy himself. If the child is struggling to finish it you may help him by making comments, such as 'Try once again' or 'If you do it again, you will get it".  

Fifth, do not punish 'indirectly' for doing activities unsuccessfully.

Parents do not punish a child directly. But when a child does not finish an activity, Parents indirectly punish the child by saying " I will not play with you if you do not do this'. Or they may even tease the child by saying something like " If you are a superman, why couldn't you do it?" Unsuccessful attempts should never be discouraged. Here is a chance for us adults to let the child know that 'it is ok to fail'.

Sixth, do not praise the child for doing new task/activities successfully.

This rule is most often broken by modern parents. When the child does an activity well, they give 'High Five', or a chocolate, or praise like " You are a good child", or " You are a superman". When we praise the child for 'successful outcome', we unconsciously promote the idea that "Succeeding in a task is more important than Trying to do the task'. When you praise the child too often in this way, such a child stops taking new activities where the chances of failing are high. For a child, getting praise is more important than doing a difficult activity and failing in it. That is why, in Montessori, the rule of 'No Praise' works.

Seventh, if you observe him failing for a long time, offer him 'strategies' to negotiate the difficulty,

Do not offer specific help to the child. Offer him 'rules'. He should apply the rule in his specific situation. Never give specific instructions to the child. Type of new task however determines the strategy.The task may be purely cognitive ( such as remembering the names of fruits), pure motor tasks (such as jumping on a bar with both legs), or a mixture of both ( such as seeing the shape of cylinder and matching it with right hole).

For instance, rule like ' Put the needle in the cloth from the same side' is useful for a child to weave a button. Or ' Look at the length of the cylinder and hole before putting the cylinder in the hole' is useful to put cylinders in the right hole.  Sometimes the best strategy is to follow another child , such as for pure motor tasks.

In a Montessori, the adult teacher devises customised strategies to negotiate the challenge zone that are unique for a child and his/her situation.


In a real Montessori environment, a child is offered hundreds of new activities where the child learns to negotiate his/her challenge zone again and again. From a single material kit like Cylinder block, 120 different exercises of varying difficulties can be offered. Child gets repeated opportunities to learn from one challenge and incorporate those learnings to negotiate the next challenge zone. Even if he fails in one, he still finds other activities that helps him regain his confidence. If he succeeds, he finds another challenge where he can test himself.

I think that this repeated pattern of negotiating challenge zones in a Montessori makes a Montessori child 'fail-proof'. This 'small' difference in his early age helps the child in taking tough challenges in his future life, which i think is a biggest gift that Montessori offers to a child.

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