Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeling Competent

I'm again spurred to comment by an article in a particularly intriguing autism e-zine.  I've found the parenting ideas consistently useful and generalize-able.  (Their book was the third in my top parenting books post when the blog was brand new.)

So, the topic of the article in this week's e-zine was "Building Competence" and here is the passage that has me thinking.  
"The funny thing about competence/incompetence is that you can see it manifested in people’s behavior. When people are feeling competent about their skills or abilities in a given activity, they are relaxed, happy, and more willing to participate. Things seem to go smoother, and the result is usually positive. When moments of competence are spotlighted, those memories are stored and can be used later to build new areas of competence.
When a person is feeling incompetent about their abilities in a given area, they may appear tense, sad, angry, or defiant. They may also have a more difficult time performing, or even refuse to participate. Many times when we see a negative behavior in a child, we think that s/he is just being defiant or naughty. In reality, what the child might be trying to communicate are feelings of incompetence. The child who complains about a task or says things like “This is so dumb” or “I hate this” may really be saying, “I feel incompetent. I need help.” It is much harder to engage a person who is feeling incompetent, and this can lead to negative outcomes. Unfortunately, a negative outcome creates negative memories that lead to even more feelings of incompetence, perpetuating the cycle."
So, it's basically the same idea as addressing anxiety, but it's more of a positive focus on what a kid can do and pointing out those accomplishments, adding to their self esteem bank.  I hadn't put it quite in those terms, but when I notice a success, I do point it out and my son loves to talk about how he accomplished it.  One recent example that has been hugely powerful is the playing of Rush Hour.  He used to find it difficult, but he practiced and practiced and reached "grand master" level.  The especially cool thing was that he identified that as he practiced, the skill got easier and easier.  In the last month, I've been able to use that experience at least a dozen times and he's willing to do more practicing, to gain a skill, realizing it will get easier!
I've also found the autobiographical memory boards serve this same function.  They highlight an area of accomplishment and thus build a feeling of competence.  The pictures are there and my son can evaluate for himself what progress he has made.  The key aspect I see as distinguishing these from some form of praise is that it is all based on observation and reference back to reality.  It's not stating something like, "You're such a great reader."  My son only gets my evaluation in that statement and it doesn't help him decide if he believes it or if it's true.  But, when I do an autobiographical memory board on reading or note that the books he's reading are much more complicated than they used to be, he can take the facts for himself and decide what his conclusions are.  For reading, he came up with: 
I am a person who: 
• has a jiffy brain
• can read hard books even to late-in-the-year fourth graders [The grade level of books he was picking out of the library at the time.]
• works hard
• wants to learn new things all the time
• is able to do things by myself

These are profound, self affirming conclusions and they build that competence bank from which he can draw.

(Two hundred page Beverly Cleary novel?  No problem for this six year old... when awake!)

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