Communicating Capability

Communicating Capability

This blog is rapidly transitioning from one of purely teaching thoughts to free therapy for my life as a new parent. Having said that, for me, having a child has rapidly crystallized and underscored ideas about teaching in a new and dynamic way. That’s not to say (at ALL) you need to have a child to teach, but for me the budding mother side is having constant conversations with the seasoned teacher side and both are coming away with food for thought.

Take crying for example. (and then we will talk about school, I promise)

How one perceives crying has great deal to do with (perhaps) hidden ideas that we have about our child. In one of my many sleepless nights I read that caregivers who believe their child capable of independent sleep tend to have better sleepers. (I have searched in vain for where I read this- as soon as I find it I will post it) I think this has something to do with how those caregivers are reacting to crying at night.

The scenario is inherently neutral: baby cries at night. 

Caregiver A (thinking): “Baby must be hungry, diaper must be dirty, baby must be upset.”

Caregiver A (action): Go in and feed/change diaper/rock

Caregiver B (thinking): “Hmm baby is making some noise. Let’s see where this goes.”

Caregiver B (action): Wait and see

Here is what would happen to me: Harry cries. I wake up like Caregiver A- nurturing guns a-blazin’ I run in there to fix, fix, fix. But sometimes all my fixing would leave him more upset then he was when I got in there. My partner and I had a talk and we decided to try and give him 5 minutes before we reacted. (Note: 5 minutes crying baby time is roughly equivalent to 90,000 hours normal time) I was SHOCKED to find that a fair percentage of the time he would fall back to sleep within that time. SHOCKED. It turns out that he is kind of a grumbler when he is shifting sleep positions and when I would go in there to “fix” problems I was actually just giving him problems- he didn’t want to be jostled and have a diaper changed.

Yet, every time I hear the opening note of a cry, my first thought is FIX FIX FIX FIX. I think more than anything else this presents a clear picture of my parenting mindset: he cannot. Cannot what? In my mind… anything. I have to be there to do everything: get the toy, soothe him to sleep, make the (perceived) hurt go away. And not because I don’t love him/want the best for him. I am jumping to fix things FOR that reason, but also hidden in there was that negative mindset. Now of course, he needs me for things, duh. But even at this age, he deserves to be thought of as capable and my mindset as “he can”. And that my job is to support, to wait, to watch and not always to fix.

In believing he is capable, my actions support his development of capability. But if I never think he can, he won’t, because I won’t give him the space and time necessary.

Okay, now the teaching stuff

Every small decision sends a message of capability or incapability to children. To ape the thing I read, I believe teachers who believe children are capable tend to have more capable students because they give them the time and the space and the tools.

  Neutral Scenario: A child needs to add a page to his or her writing book

Teacher A:  Let me staple this for you

Teacher B: The tape and stapler are over there, let me know if you get stuck.


Neutral Scenario: Its time to sit on the rug

Teacher A:  Let me tell you your rug spot

Teacher B: Find a spot that feels like it will help you focus


Neutral Scenario: A child wants to read a book that is outside his or her reading level

Teacher A:  Please shop only from your just right bin

Teacher B: That book has some tricky parts, what strategies might you use if it gets hard?

Over time, Teacher A, who might (like parenting me) love her students to pieces, could slowly erode the feelings of capability in her students, or at the very least not build them.

Our teaching (And parenting) lives are never just once decision. They are a series of small ones that communicate (whether we know it or not) a shape and a space for children to inhabit. When we focus on control, order, and prevention we run the risk of teaching children they are incapable. Giving time and space is terrifying, but within that time and space is where children find their capability.

From getting materials to finding rug spots, to looking at books out of the (gasp) just right level, when we do less telling and fixing, we give kids the chance to find their true capabilities as decision makers, problem solvers, and thinkers.

One last note– it is always harder for us, the adults, then for kids. Kids can figure out how to find a seat on the rug on their own (and just about everything else), I promise you, but it will feel hard for some teachers to let that messiness make its way to clarity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Don’t blame the kids for our own control/fear issues- name it and move on. I am afraid every time Harry cries at night it is because he feels abandoned, but I’ve learned to say, “My fear is that he feels abandoned but I know he is really just working through something noisily”.  You may think, “Unassigned spots at tables will make chaos” but in reality it is, “My fear is unassigned table spots will be chaos, but I know it will just feel chaotic until kids get more practice at it.”

Here’s to cultivating capability (and a full nights sleep)!




  • Pam Brown
    Posted at 20:57h, 10 September Reply

    As a parent, definitely an A. As a teacher, definitely a B. Thank you to my 20 year old son!

  • ebgriffin
    Posted at 22:23h, 10 September Reply

    I wish I had read this when I was a young mom and a young teacher! You are so wise!

    • Carolyn Longley
      Posted at 03:28h, 10 October Reply

      Hanging back and letting our students or our own children figure things out even as young as Harry, we discover that we are not just instilling in them the belief that they are capable but we are teaching them necessay life skills to be independent.

  • halpey1
    Posted at 15:27h, 11 September Reply

    I love so much about this I must share, share, share!

  • Tara Waudby
    Posted at 11:54h, 25 September Reply

    Great read and well said! I completely agree from a parent and teacher perspective. As a parent, I loved the Baby Whisperer and she wrote much the same as you with the premise that we are always building for independence and treating the baby with the respect we give anyone. As a teacher, I loved reading about the Pygmalion Effect in Robyn Jackson’s Never Work Harder Than Your Students. So from both perspectives, I absolutely agree with you: If we believe they can, they can.

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