The Right Kind of Help

Teacher Jocelyn, can you help me?


Kids ask for help many times a day, for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the task they need to do is too physically difficult for them to manage at the age and stage they are,  like putting doll clothes over stiff little doll arms,  or manipulating scissors to cut paper. At other times, kids ask for help in order to respect our limits, when in actuality, they are capable of doing the task on their own.  Examples of this would be waiting for us to open the gates at school, or asking instead of climbing to get something off a high shelf.  Sometimes, kids ask for help when they are capable, and also free, but they just don’t want to do the task. Peeling tangerines, and wiping ones self on the potty are times when I see this happening.

One area of asking that we see at school very often is asking for help in order to get and maintain adult attention. Frequently, I hear, “Teacher Jocelyn, can you help me?”, and it turns out to be an invitation to play or spend time together. All children need attention, connection, cooperation, special time to be with another person, and I do regard it as a form of help. It is in fact the most helpful thing another adult can do for me; just be with me, in that way.  Whether we are drinking wine or folding laundry, just our being together, engaged in the present, is pretty much my most favorite thing to do. Okay, actually more the wine than the laundry, but you get my point.

So, when a child comes to me asking for help, there are many different possibilities for what is really needed. I am careful to restrain myself from swooping in and doing all kinds of unnecessary things for children, because I have thought a lot about what I want to teach with my actions. If I do things for a child that they can do for themselves, particularly if they have not asked for my intervention, I’m teaching them that it’s better if I control this thing. I’m teaching them that they are not ready in some way, either undermining their ability or emotional readiness for the task. I’m teaching them that my need to hurry up is more important than their need to be competent and capable.

Now, there certainly are times when I do intend to demonstrate adult control and give caution to a child who feels ready to try it themselves. Using a sharp knife is a great example. Sometimes, dinner is going to burn if you don’t just hurry up and chop this thing yourself and get it in the pan. Your plan did not allow time for a lesson to your child in knife safety. At other times, maybe your child asks, and you say, “sure!”, and you sit down together, talking about the different parts of the knife, where to hold it, what motion we use to cut while keeping our fingers safe. But one lesson does not entitle your child to then chop themselves an apple any time they feel like it. You still want to be there coaching for quite a while, because kids are excited and love to experiment, and you really want to be sure that this object is used responsibly. This becomes one of those times they ask for help because they are respecting our limits, not because they are incapable.

At school, where the world slows down a little and I have no chores to get done, I have the luxury of taking time to really hear kids. In answer to the question, “Can you help me?”, I often answer, “Sure! What kind of help do you need?” Sometimes I even say it when a child is holding out a package from their lunch that needs to be opened, and it’s obvious what they want me to do. I say it because I want to draw out our verbal interaction.  I find that things work better when they are made explicit.

The answers kids give tell me a lot about what kind of interaction they are seeking from me, and what they are working on. Sometimes a child asks me to carry something for them that they don’t want to carry themselves, but they won’t relinquish, lest another person pick it up (I don’t do it).  Sometimes a kid wants me to dig a hole with them, and when we sit down to work, it turns out that digging is secondary to talking together (digging a hole is often a way for multiple children to work side by side, with no objective other than togetherness).  Sometimes a kid wants me to push them on the swing (swings create an intimacy both between the pusher and the swinger, and between both swingers. Kids use it like a therapist’s couch, or to be with one friend, often in exclusion of another friend). Sometimes a child asks me to do something I know they can do themselves, and I have to navigate the possible reasons for this (do they just want my company and attention? Are they disempowered around this task for some reason? Is there something about getting an adult to do their plan that feels important? The reason for the ask might affect my response).

Always, I want to stretch what the child knows themselves to be capable of doing. So, if they seem to think they aren’t strong enough and need help, I try to get them to use their body and see that they are strong. If they seem to think that they are not safe up so high and need help, I talk to them, asking if they feel sturdy, talking them into finding their own footing, rather than scooping them down.  If they think they can’t draw and want help making a picture, I ask them what parts they think it should have, asking them to try one part after another. And if they seem to think that I have the power to bestow approval or praise, I ask them what they think about it themselves, or I just affirm that I see them.

To children, adults seem unbelievably powerful. We seem to know everything, we can do whatever we want, we are so strong and capable, way beyond what we can ourselves acknowledge. When a kid asks for my help, I take the position that I have been granted immense privilege, and it is my choice to use this privilege to empower the person in front of me. That’s the kind of help I want to give.

JocelynNeil Symes