The Just-Right Challenge


By Michaela Gordon, OTR/L


    Occupational therapists are known for using the term, the just-right challenge. The term was originally coined by occupational therapist, Dr. Jean Ayres, and later used in other occupational therapy frameworks. The just-right challenge means the activity we are engaging in is not too easy and not too hard. We don’t want our daily activities to be too easy. This leads to boredom, impedes our ability to learn new skills, and doesn’t create enough stress to build our resilience. If activities are too hard, this causes too much stress and lead to avoidance of the activity.


As we know, life does not always provide us with just-right challenges, but in the therapeutic setting, the therapist is attempting to create an environment that allows for a healthy level of challenge, that leads to some level of success and encourages the child to come back and try again. The therapist will then teach you, the parent, how to create these just-right challenges at home. Over time, as the child masters these just-right challenges, it teaches them to be more adaptable in all sorts of uncontrolled life situations.


Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it can be easy for us adults to identify what a just-right challenge feels like, especially since we have had years of experience life experience to guide us. However, it can be challenging to determine that for our children. Regular meltdowns, battle of the wills to avoid tasks, and other creative ways to avoid non-preferred tasks can really leave us adults scratching our heads about whether we are providing the right opportunities for success.


When making decisions about what activities we want to expose our children to, we will naturally wonder if we should select activities based on preference. It is important to know your child’s strengths and really highlight those! We all have a purpose, talents, and gifts. Put them in just-right situations and let them shine!


However, it is equally important not to avoid all activities that they don’t like. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a parent or a child tell me that they “just aren’t really a sports person”. In reality, the child was lagging in the fundamental motor skills to participate in those sports. Once we worked on these skills in therapy, some of these children ended up finding a sport they loved and went on to be really great athletes! Even if this doesn’t happen, trying a variety of activities gives the child information about their activity preferences, gives them information about what types of challenges they respond best to, and teaches them to move outside their comfort zone.


Let’s go through some pointers to help us learn to create just-right challenges for our children:

1. One important thing to remember is that what seems easy to you, the adult, is not necessarily easy for your child. Whether you are playing a board game or riding bikes together, you have done these activities (or similar activities) many times before. For your child, these tasks are all relatively new, so you want to keep a beginners attitude when playing with them.


2. Your child may not have the same interests as you! Now, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try an activity, but it is ok if they don’t share the same enthusiasm you have for a particular activity. The more pressure you put on them, the less joy they will find in the task.


3. Make a list of child’s strengths and weaknesses. In what situations do they thrive and in what situations do they struggle?


4. Determine how your child likes to be helped. Do they like you to be direct? Do they want your physical help? Do they get mad and tell you they want to try it themselves? Do they need more space? Do they need a little push into new things or to keep trying? Do they complain a lot, but then feel proud or happy when they succeed? Would they rather someone else like a coach or teacher help them?


5. When approaching non-preferred or difficult tasks, it’s best to break down the task into easy, manageable steps. Let the child feel confident with one aspect of the task before adding on the next step.


Example #1: When learning to jump rope, first lay the rope down and just practice jumping over it. Once they have that down, have them pick up the handles and practice jumping over the rope. When they can do that step, teach them to touch the handles up at the top of their head. And for the last step, have them swing the rope over their head for one full cycle of jumping rope.


Example #2: Your child is afraid to ride their bike. You have been pushing them to ride out onto 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 telling 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. With each mastery, the child goes a little further, and eventually they can ride their bike throughout the neighborhood.


Example #3: 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 the task boring, meaningless, or maybe it is really hard for them. You decide to cut a strip of the top row of letters on the sheet so there are less letters to practice and less visual information. Perhaps you decide to make the challenge more fun by offering them a wiggle pen to give them some tactile input. You might also show them how to make the letter, followed by having them trace the letter, and then asking them to make the letter on their own.


6. 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 children benefit from persisting and embracing challenges. Remind your children of how far they have come and how far they can go.


7. 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 when you let them experience a healthy level of frustration, you are sending them the message that you trust them, you believe in them, and that you are there supporting them while they figure it out. It’s very empowering to the child!


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

Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L