The “Just Right Challenge” and Building Trust

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the importance of active participation. When an individual is actively participating in an activity, something that is done by their choosing, and is motivated, not only is their enthusiasm and focus increased, but also their motivation and control. An individual will continue to engage in this way if the activity challenges them just enough. What is just enough is that it is challenge that is intriguing and do-able, but yet a step up from what they have previously done. When an individual experiences success in challenge, the cycle of intrigue, engagement, and focus continues. Whether this challenge occurs with a group of others or individually, the result is the same: trust is built. Both trust in self and with a group, a mutual safety is achieved through the trust built in achievement.

Sometimes my clients surprise me in what they are willing to challenge themselves after this sense of trust in self occurs. Mothers have reported this trust in self being secure enough to try experiences, especially sensory ones, that previously were not tolerable. For example, the little boy who was sensitive to loud noises experiencing tolerable sound in enjoyable yet challenging levels, such as going to the circus and enjoying every minute of it. Even when the clown was shot out of the very loud cannon. The boy who had difficulty in new situations enjoying the crowd of strangers and the energy they brought with them and the loud, obtrusive noises that   accompanied the events was now part of the enjoyable event, experienced as that effect of the event.
Or what about the same little boy, working on some speech goals, singing his songs on the car ride of daily errands after leaving Music Therapy? Practicing, on his own, the skills he was going to therapy for and having fun doing so because this was something challenging, but attainable.
How about the small group of young children, each with differing diagnoses, who have difficulties in some social situations? Each one of them comes to the group feeling secure enough, not only with themselves, but also with the others there, to begin to take unprompted steps out of their various individual comfort zones. The little boy who was asked to leave preschool because of his behavior, due to the inability to process so much information in a group. He now is the group leader, who encourages others and makes sure no one is left out .He even directs the friendly energy of the group. When he is having difficulty processing, he leaves the group, hoards toys, yells, and appears rude and defiant. But when he feels secure with himself and others because what they say and do makes sense is sweet, compliant, gentle and makes sure all are included.
Then there is the little guy who has some language, but doesn’t use it unless he is in a 1 on 1 situation. He often gets far away from the crowd, demonstrates a flat affect, an eye glance that appears to look at nothing at all, and burrows into isolation. When he walks into this room of individuals, whether it is a day he talks or not, he comes into the room and leaves with a huge smile and giggles. He initiates the play with the toy monkeys and giggles as the others join in. There is also the little guy who prefers not to talk at school, although he is very verbal. He asks for a turn, initiates some of the activities, and loves leading the group in the more structured parts of the session. Lastly, there is the individual I spoke of at the beginning. He does not always say much, but is the life of the group and provides the heartbeat and the rhythm to the group. Although he does not always demonstrate the extent of his verbal abilities in the group, he processes it and then demonstrates what he has learned outside the group. That is the point of the group, to carry those skills outside.

Intrinsic motivation, active participation, and trust in self, the world and others in it. It’s a great place to be.

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC


Susan Chadduck

A wonderful reminder of how children learn best! I want to emphasize how critical this idea is for those of us working with students who aren’t engaging with others/activities…Every child can learn and as teachers, parents, and therapists it is our job to meet the child where he or she is.


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