As a parent or caregiver of a child who regularly sees therapists, you may have noticed how we nudge toys closer, ‘accidentally’ bump things further away or hold items way above your little one’s head trying to coax him or her to reach just a little bit further, stand a little taller or move a teeny bit more? 

Maybe you thought we were being a bit mean!

As a children’s physiotherapist, the most exciting (and often most challenging) part of my job is finding ways to keep children of all ages motivated and interested through “play” for long enough to do exercises or activities in a way that is designed to help them to learn and grow to the best of their abilities.

A lot of thought goes into the way we play with your child and the best way to help them achieve their goals.  

Activities need to be realistic and achievable.

They should never be so hard that your child gives up, refuses to play or even worse, ends up in tears; but they do need to be challenging enough that they don’t get bored or aren’t really trying. 

It’s all about trial and error and finding that happy place where your child is pushing themselves to do their best while still having fun and enjoying the experience (the best is when they don’t even realise that they are ‘working’!).

This is what therapists now call the ‘Just Right Challenge’ – originally described in those terms by Jean Ayres, Occupational Therapist (OT).

OT’s are taught to find the ‘Just Right Challenge’ for individual children with sensory integration challenges.

But it’s equally a really useful way to think about progressing activities for all children, with or without any type of additional needs.

Whatever it is that we’re working on, whether it’s building up tolerance to movement, strengthening legs for standing transfers or developing head control during tummy time, the wheels are always turning, trying to figure out how to meet your child where they are and then push them just enough to make a positive difference while still keeping it fun.

Tuning into what motivates your child is key with developing their ‘Just Right Challenges’ and you as a parent are the most qualified to know what motivates your own very unique little person.

If there’s a specific toy that your baby loves and responds well to, it can be helpful to bring it to therapy sessions so that your therapist can use it to motivate your child during therapy.

Similarly, if your older child adores playing memory games or is obsessive about the local football team, these little nuggets of information can be so valuable when planning therapy sessions and activities so please do share! 

The ‘Just Right Challenge’ doesn’t need to stop when you go home!

Here are some pointers to remember:

1. The activities that you use as motivators need to be what’s interesting to your child at that particular time (people, food, toys, absolutely anything your child is in to).

2. You may need to change the motivator throughout an activity to keep your child interested.

3. Whatever object you use do check that it is in the correct place for your child to actually complete the challenge. It may need to be closer, higher, lower etc and you might have to move it throughout the task depending on your child’s specific needs.

4. Give your child as much help as they need to complete the activity with success and then decrease your support as they get better at doing it themselves. For example, if your child would like to engage in a posting activity then you may need to support hand over hand initially or start with a large object and ‘post box hole’, gradually introducing smaller, more challenging activities.

5. Support your child to complete with success the very last part of the activity and then once they have succeeded they will be more motivated to try it again by themselves.

6. Praise, encourage and try again!

7. If you, your child or both of you have a less successful ‘Just right challenge’ day, please don’t be disappointed. It happens to all of us from time to time!

In my experience as a physiotherapist and mother, the single most motivating thing for your child (no matter what his or her difficulties may be) is for you to get involved.

The more you participate in whatever it is that your child is doing, the happier and more successful they will be and the quicker they will reach their goals.

No matter how much I set up activities for my kids to get on with, they never enjoy them as much as when I play with them (much to my frustration when I need to be getting on with cooking dinner)! They just get so much more out of the challenge with me offering some sort of support. 

The aim of the ‘Just right challenge’ is to empower your child and for them to feel proud of their accomplishments.

They help children to learn that challenges and pushing themselves can be rewarding and beneficial rather than frustrating and intimidating things to avoid at all costs!  

I’ve no doubt that if you have any questions about how you can provide ‘Just right challenges’ for your child that your local therapist will be delighted to answer them.

Have fun learning and growing with your amazing child and thanks for reading!

Reference: OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY USING A SENSORY INTEGRATIVE APPROACH FOR CHILDREN WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES Roseann C. Schaaf and Lucy Jane Miller

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