Capable & Competent

Written by Julie Bisnath, BSW RSW

When we think about children’s behaviour and define for ourselves what is “acceptable”, one of the first things to consider is our own expectations of how children should behave.  What are our expectations? And are they developmentally appropriate?   If we have unrealistic expectations (either too high or too low) of what children ought to be able to do then their behaviour will more often than not fall into the category of “unacceptable” leading to undue strain and stress on the adult-child relationship.  Knowing that children learn best within the context of caring and supportive relationships, we can see how our own expectations influence and shape that learning—either positively or negatively.

How Does Learning Happen? helps us to understand that seeing children as capable and competent is the place to start.  But what exactly does this mean and how do we communicate it to our children? When our expectations are developmentally appropriate it’s much easier to see what children can do and are doing instead of won’t do and aren’t doing.  We are then more inclined to support learning and teach new skills.  Our beliefs, words, and actions directly impact how children see themselves–either as competent or not—which in turn influences their behaviour.

Shifting our beliefs and expectations:

When we reflect upon a child and really think about how we see them it helps us to understand their competencies.  What are they good at? What skills have they mastered?  What are their interests? Next, we take a look at our expectations for behaviour.  Are they appropriate for the child’s age and ability?  For a complete picture, it’s important to consider all domains of development.  There are many great tools available to help define and clarify these expectations—some of which are referenced below.

Expressing our beliefs and expectations:

Conveying the view that children are capable and competent is not always easy.  Evaluative praise (“Good job!”), generic reinforcement (“That’s beautiful, I love it!”), and well-meaning directions (“Does your coat go on the floor?”) or corrections (“Your boots are on the wrong feet.”), can all communicate the message that a child isn’t actually capable or competent at all.

Internalized thoughts might sound something like this:

“Good job!”—She says that to everyone.  What does it mean? How does she know that I’ve done a good job? Reinforcement is much more effective when it’s specific and not based on the evaluation of good or bad: “Zippers are hard! You practiced a lot and today you zipped up your coat without any help!”.  “You tidied up the blocks by putting them in their bin.  That was helpful.  Now the carpet area is clear and ready—let’s dance!”.

“That’s beautiful, I love it!”—Does he really love it? He only loves it because it’s beautiful.  I don’t know what beautiful means so I will concentrate on making all of my paintings the same.  Commenting on what you see or how it makes you feel sends a much clearer and more genuine message: “I noticed that you used the red paint to make all of these dots and the blue paint to make the lines—tell me more about these.”.  “Your painting is so colourful; I love how you’re experimenting by mixing the red and yellow over here. What were you thinking about while you were painting? ”. “Looking at your painting reminds me of all the colours we see outside.”

“Does your coat go on the floor?”— I’m stupid, I always forget, I never do the right thing. Questions or directions for which the child already knows the answer can lead to shame-based thinking.  Modeling and narrating the action that you want to see (“I’ll put my coat on the hook”), using a verbal prompt (“Coat!”), or a physical gesture (eye contact while tapping coat hook), can all remind the child what to do in a way that says “I know you know what to do.  We all forget sometimes.  Everyone needs reminders”.  Of course, there are times when a clear direction: “Stop.” or “No running.” is imperative for the child’s safety or the safety of others.

“Your boots are on the wrong feet.”—I give up. I can’t do it.  While well-intended, these type of corrections don’t consider the process and steps that the child has done properly and only focuses on the end “problem”.  When we pause to think about these other steps (finding boots, standing boots upright, balancing to insert one foot and then the other) we see that the child has really done quite a lot.  The fact that they’ve accomplished all of this is more important than the fact that their boots are on the wrong feet.  Acknowledging the effort is more likely to result in the child feeling confident and encouraged to keep trying.  “Terrific! You’ve found your boots and put them on. You are ready to play outside.” Acknowledging the error is more likely to result in the child giving up and feeling like they “can’t do it”.   The natural uncomfortableness of having their boots on the wrong feet might prompt them to correct this on their own.  Otherwise, it is something that can be gently discussed another time (“It might feel more comfortable to try…”).  Again, it goes without saying that some things absolutely need correcting/adjusting–car seat straps or bike helmets for example.  In this case,  we can still acknowledge the child’s role “You’re learning to do it yourself!” while explaining that some jobs have an adult role too “It’s my job to keep you safe and that means that I have to fasten your seatbelt/helmet.”.

The actions we take also communicate our view of the child.  What messages do we convey if we never give children the opportunity to try? If we as adults are constantly doing things for them, things that are developmentally appropriate and that they could be doing for themselves (dressing them, cutting their food, lifting them up to the slide, etc.) or are constantly intervening to rescue them or resolve their problems, we are sending a message that says: You can’t do it. You’re not smart enough, strong enough, skilled enough.   Over time, children internalize these messages and come to believe them to be true.

Finding the balance between helping and hindering is the key.  Letting children know that we believe in their abilities, encouraging them to trust themselves, and supporting them to develop age appropriate skills set the foundation.  Providing lots of opportunities to practice new skills with the knowledge that we are here to help if needed, communicates that we see them as capable and competent.

When we believe that children are capable and competent and we express this belief (with words and actions) in a way that affirms their skills and abilities, we are more likely to see their behaviour and learning as developmentally appropriate.  When we see their behaviour as appropriate and acceptable, we are more likely to want to support and further their learning and development.  This creates and contributes to a caring and responsive relationship, one in which children can truly flourish and thrive.


How Does Learning Happen– Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years A resource about learning through relationships for those who work with young children and their families.

Think, Feel, Act: Lessons from research about young children “Positive Relationships and Brain Development”

Book–How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Caring for Kids & Canadian Pediatric SocietyYour child’s development: What to expect

Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development: The most up-to-date scientific knowledge on early childhood development, from conception to age five.

Zero to Three–Your Child’s Development: Age-Based Tips From Birth to 36 Months

On Track: Supporting Healthy Child Development and Early Identification in the Early Years A reference guide for professionals in Ontario

The Looksee Checklist is a simple, easy-to-use developmental tool designed to help monitor a child’s development from 1 month to 6 years of age, featuring a short list of “yes” or “no” questions about the child’s abilities. Register for an account to access the online or PDF screening tool.