The Just-Right Challenge

Occupational therapists are known for using the term , the just-right challenge. The term  was originally coined by occupational therapy Dr. Jean Ayres and later used in other occupational therapy frameworks. The just-right challenge can be looked at from many different points of view and becomes a little more complex when assessing this in children. I say this because adults have such a large influence on the environments they present the children with. For instance, every adult has their own individual perception of the world and what they find easy and challenging. The adult then has to either pair their point of view or shift their point of view in order to create situations that aren’t too easy for the child that there is no satisfaction in the activity, but also not too hard that the child feels so frustrated they stop trying to meet the challenge. To press further on this, there are also so many different types of parenting, teaching, and coaching styles, which adds another layer of complexity when it comes to challenging our children with some adults presenting with an authoritative outlook, some with a passive outlook, and some with a balanced outlook. How the environment is laid out for the child will influence how he/she perceives stress, how they go about completing tasks, how they interact with others, and how they see themselves and their abilities.

For simplicity, I offer an analogy of how I approach creating a just like challenge for children.  I see myself, the adult, as the earth and the children as the seeds. As the earth, I am a steady, enduring medium in their environment. I am taking it all in, monitoring by sensing what is going on inside me, what is going on around me, and sensing how the child is sensing the situation. I know as a seed, they are going to need just enough sun, just enough water, and just the right timing for the blooming of the flower to occur. If we overdo or under-do during a time of growth, we take away opportunities for the flower to bloom and to flourish. Again, we are monitoring, pacing, and making the child feel safe as we plot out the environment.

As we know, life is organized and disorganized all at once. The best is when we see the seed coming out of the ground, starting to sprout. However, there are other times in the process where either us the adult or the child have complications that arise and we have to problem solve not in a way that fixes the situation and makes it perfect, but challenges us as we patiently wait for the development of what we planted.  Perhaps there was a lack of water or maybe the sun didn’t come out one day. Sometimes that happens. Perhaps the flower is feeling lonely or they are upset because they are not growing as fast as other plants. The flower may not want to wait and they want to be a full grown flower RIGHT NOW! We get it right? But our job isn’t to just fix all that for the child or to bear down on them with unrealistic expectations. We can’t neglect the flower and we can’t pull the flower up from the ground and make it grow. It just doesn’t work that way. Our job is to be that steady ground, never wavering, showing up, shifting with what comes up in the moment. And in all honesty, it feels good to meet a just-right challenge. Enduring roadblocks, boredom, and some uncomfortable feelings is worth it when you begin to master and adapt to what shows up.

Here are some tips for creating just-right challenges:

  1. Give yourself just-right challenges! Where are you too hard on yourself and where can you implement a little more discipline? Once you have an idea how you operate, then you can observe how your child operates.
  2. Make a list of child’s strengths and weaknesses. In what situations do they thrive and what things hard for them?
  3. Once you know your child’s strengths, really highlight those! We all have a purpose, talents, and gifts. Put them in just-right situations and let them shine!
  4. Once you know what is difficult for them, create situations that you feel are doable and allow for room to adjust to either something more simple or complicated. Example #1: Your child is afraid to ride their bike. You have been pushing them to ride out on the street, telling them it is not scary, encouraging them that they can do it. You see they can sit on the bike and even pedal the bike, but looking down that long sidewalk seems daunting to them. This is showing you, the challenge is too hard, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. You would make the challenge easier by practicing pedaling in the driveway. Then the next challenge would be riding to a cone you put out or a certain crack in the pavement and with each mastery, going a little further. Example #2: Your child despises handwriting. They may cry and scream, refusing to participate. Once you get them to the table, they scribble on their book or do everything but practice making the letters. You might not know if they find it boring, meaningless, or maybe it is really hard them. So your next step is to explore. The next time handwriting practice comes around, you don’t avoid writing in the book, but you add a fun element. Perhaps they can make their letters with chalk and use a wet sponge to write over the letters. Maybe you write letters on their back with your finger and they have to write out what they think the letter was. These additions will help not only help them sensory-wise by adding different tactile mediums, but will also make the task feel more playful and purposeful. Once you have done this, then you write just a few letters or words and you can graduate the amount over time. Another example is having them trace letters if the task is still too hard.
  5. Just-right challenges add up! It might seem at times what you are doing isn’t making a difference or that it’s taking a long time to master a skill. However, all kids benefit from persisting and embracing challenges. Remind your children of how far they have come and how far they can go.
  6. Allow frustration and failure. These are ok things to experience and they will not hurt your child! I am not talking about extreme frustration and failure because that’s not just-right. It can be so hard to watch a child struggle, but I feel when I let them struggle, I am really telling them that I trust them, that they got it, and I know they can move through whatever the challenge is. It’s very empowering to the child.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
-Lao Tzu

Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L

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