How do you wade through all the decisions that a struggling child requires? For me, the concept of the ‘just right challenge’ was a lifesaver.

By Marijke Jones

kid-pushingParenting can be hard on a good day. Add a kid with learning or behavioral problems, and complications increase by what seems like thousands.

Where IS that owner’s manual, anyway?!

When I was eyeball-deep in my son’s hardest years, I felt overwhelmed by choices and decisions. Therapies, medication, alternatives to medication, change diet (again), switch teachers, switch schools??

At some point, an occupational therapist introduced us to the invaluable concept of the “just-right challenge.” I’ve heard different names, from the “Goldilocks effect” to “finding the pocket.” It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you want to find a challenge – in this case, an OT activity – that challenges you just enough to push you a little past your comfort zone and make you stronger.

Too much, and you just collapse and can’t do it. Too little, and it flat-out doesn’t do anything.

Simple and obvious, right?

And yet this simple concept transformed my outlook.

What I like most about it is the way it takes things out of system-oriented thinking to child-oriented thinking. We’ve all gotten caught in the “how do I help my child pretend he’s normal?” trap.

I certainly did.

But at the end of the day, it’s not all about where they’re “supposed to be” or what the theoretical best choice is, as if there is some magical “best” that applies to everyone. It’s not just about how to squeeze them into the system and somehow, with enough supports and modifications and IEPs and homework help, make them sort of look like everyone else and almost go at the System-Dictated, Appropriate Pace.

They can’t. They aren’t. They don’t.

Well, most of them don’t. If you found answers that kept your child on a course that looked anywhere near “normal,” kudos to you and stop reading now. This is for those of us with sleep disorders and stomach ulcers to show for our constant worrying.

As I discovered (the hard way, of course), you get way more return from looking deeply at your child – where he is, not where he is “supposed to be” according to a system that was SO not designed for him.

There is a point, I believe, where you ditch the comfort of system-dictated standards (and yes, I do get just how much that feels like jumping off a cliff) and start assessing who your really child is: where she’s at, what she can handle, what will get her – your unique, wonderful, frustrating, not-like-anyone-else little human being – to the next step.

We used this concept to guide us when we:

  • Took CJ out of school and homeschooled him for a few years. He was shut down and isolated, barely getting through, even in a supportive environment with many accommodations. We decided the most important thing for him, at that moment, was to decompress, get all his therapies with enough space to integrate them, and find his own joy in life and learning again. That was his just-right challenge at that moment, and anything more had already proven to be too much.
  • Decided how many therapies to do at once. We overloaded him a few times and he very obviously failed to progress (boy, could we have used that money back!). We took a deep breath and decided that less was more, figured out what we thought the priorities were, and backed off. So much more effective.
  • Chose a very alternative school for high school, knowing that it might not provide a background that colleges would find appealing. (We weren’t dead set on college being the next step, but didn’t want to kill his chances should he want that.) But because it was exactly the environment he needed to explore his own learning style, he thrived. And ended up, to our astonishment, getting into an excellent college. Turns out, some colleges appreciate uniqueness! Well, he sure had that. When he was allowed to approach things his own way instead of conforming to the way things were “supposed to be done,” he shone.

I understand that not everyone is in a position to blow off the whole system and find their own road. But there are always little choices you make along the way that, cumulatively, make up a child’s world. I encourage you to assess your decisions through this lens, and see what looks different.

It might feel counterintuitive at first, but when you make the full transition from all the “supposed-to’s” to “who is this human being and what does he need right now?,” I promise you, your child will start to feel a whole lot more seen and be a whole lot happier. Which almost always translates to more success.