Without engagement and persistence adults, as well as children, can often lead to labels such as ADHD. It is the inability to pay attention, set goals, finish tasks, and limited self-control issues such as aggression and addiction. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 2021 about one in six children in the U.S. have one or more developmental delays. These developmental disabilities are due to physical, learning, language, or behavior. Often these delays are related to children’s inability to engage in their work and staying on task.
Play is how children learn. It is their work. If a child feels safe and loved in their environment they will work harder to stay on task and follow directions. People always work best with others when they feel respected and with whom they have a positive relationship. Play encourages children to plan ahead and to take risks. When a child is involved in their play, they are self-motivated which increases their engagement and persistence. When a child is in control of their play it promotes feelings of competence, which then feeds the child’s self-esteem and confidence to try new things. Because children use various styles to learn, make sure that your lesson plans touch upon the different types of play. These include physical play, object play, pretend play, construction play, and play with rules.
To be engaged means to be fully involved. It is the ability to be doing your thing while others around you are doing something different. It is the power to keep oneself from being distracted. As educators we can help children stay on task by remembering what is developmentally appropriate for the ages we teach. Environment directly affects children’s behaviors. If a child has difficulty becoming engaged in play or their attention span is very short, look at your environment objectively. Ask yourself if the equipment and tasks are age appropriate? Are there boundaries around centers to help with distractions and is there enough room in the center for children to move about freely? Is there a mixture of large and small motor play? Is the room over stimulating with noise, color, or visuals on the walls? Young children use all their senses to understand how their world works. When planning a weekly lesson ask yourself if you have included all 5 senses into your theme. Preschoolers need periods of time for both large and small motor muscles throughout the day.
In order for children to practice emerging skills and solving problems on their own, we need to make sure that the schedule allows for large chunks of time devoted to free play/child choice. When introducing new materials into the classroom, take a moment to show the children how it works, what your expectations are for using it, and how to care for it (When you use the marker remember to put the cap back on so it won’t dry out). We want children to feel successful as this helps build their self-confidence. Having self-confidence motivates learners to try new and challenging activities, which leads to more natural learning. We also want children to be motivated from within. For most children, the use of external rewards (prize box, excessive praise, threats) is countered productive. By over using these rewards, children loose their internal motivation to try new things. They need to continually be fed some type of reward or their motivation begins to slip. Before the age of 3-years a child is not developmentally ready to sit or stay with a task for long periods of time. If a child is having difficulty becoming engaged in a play situation, step in and model what the play might look like. Once the child begins to be involved, step back and let the child continue on their own.
Persistence is to have that “I think I can” attitude when up against a challenging task. It is having competence to step up and try something new. It is following through on an activity until the end goal is met. The ability to stick with something is as important to school and life as having a talent or high IQ. Children learn to be persistent when they are successful in completing a challenging task. The art of building persistence is by scaffolding your lesson plan activities to capture what a child is able to do and giving them a slightly harder task. When a child is having fun learning something new it becomes self-motivating and they develop strong persistence.
Scaffolding is a way of teaching new skills by breaking tasks down into small obtainable steps. Children develop skills at different rates. Because of this our teaching needs to be individualized. For a child who is competent at a skill or task, we can offer praise and encouragement. For a child who is struggling with a task we can offer more specific instruction. This in turn helps the child feel successful with a task they would not otherwise be able to perform (Pushing a child on a tricycle while encouraging them to put their feet on the peddles and push). Skills develop over time working from easy to more difficult. Educators help children move up the levels by meeting them where their skill level is at and pushing them to slightly harder tasks. If a task is too easy a child can quickly become bored and bored children often act out using challenging behaviors.
Children often become frustrated when a task is too difficult. We can help by validating their feelings then help them break down the task into steps that they can do. We can offer suggestions to the problem and then give them the tools that they need to try it (You look frustrated that the track keeps slipping. I wonder if you use tape if it will help hold it in place?). We want to give the children the tools they need to finish a task but allow for them to do as much of it for themselves as they can. Our motto as teachers should be, “let me see you try it first” before we give help. We want children to learn to follow through, even on difficult tasks. This is done through scaffolding and repetition, repetition, and repetition.
Activities that help develop Engagement
- Develop respectful relationships with each child.
- Give clear and simple expectations for working with materials. (The water needs to stay in the water table and not on the floor).
- Limit periods of waiting.
- Coach a child who is wandering a way to help you or get involved in an activity.
- Make sure to include large chunks of time in your daily schedule for the children to become thoroughly involved in their play.
- Allow for unstructured or child choice times throughout your day.
- Have eye contact when speaking to an individual.
- Avoid clutter.
- Provide equipment that can be used without adult supervision.
- Develop activities that follow the children’s interests.
- Clearly define individual spaces during circle time.
- Make sure your transitions are prepared and have structure.
- Sometimes all a child needs to refocus is a gentle touch.
- Repetition of activities helps a child feel more competent in their abilities.
- Follow a child’s interests; provide books on the subject in your reading center.
- Play games that require children to listen and follow directions such as Simon Says.
- Encourage children to make up new endings to stories or write their own stories through dictation.
- Add movement activities to your large group rug time.
- Role play.
- Ask children about their play. ( I noticed that you ____. I was wondering how you___. I like the way you ___).
Activities that help develop Persistence
- Give clear and simple directions. Work towards 2-3 step directions. (Put your coat in your cubby and then come and find a seat at the table)
- Use visual cues to remind children what the expectations are in your classroom.
- Teach voice modulation in order to keep the room at a happy buzz.
- Some children have sensory issues to too much stimuli. Check to make sure your room is not too noisy or over powered visually or with color.
- Give children support when doing a difficult task but do not do it for them.
- Give real praise for achievements, not just a generic ‘good job’.
- Provide open-ended materials that have multiple solutions for using.
- Make sure your children know that taking risks and making mistakes is all part of learning and growing. Even adults make mistakes.
- Use scissors designed for young children.
- Block play is good for problem solving and exploration of materials.
- Provide lots of practical life skills such as sweeping, spreading with a butter knife, pouring, and scooping.
- Provide age appropriate materials, such as puzzles and Duplos.
- Visual directions on how complete a task.
- Musical instruments.
- Sorting, classifying, and comparing help children learn to analyze which is part of perseverance.
- Set small but achievable goals for individual children and the class as a whole.
- Be a teacher who is loving, reasonably patient, gives emotional supports, willing to listen, and consistently fair.