By: Erin Roon, MA CCC-SLP
Competence is a word I use a lot in my day to day work with families as an CORE Approach consultant. Not many sessions go by in which we don’t talk about their child’s feelings of competence or incompetence. Many people do not stop to think about feelings of competence in themselves, let alone in their children.I never used to think about competency/incompetency, at least not in personal terms. I just knew that there were times when I felt really good about my ability to do something. At other times I didn’t want to do something, because I didn’t think I was very good at it. We all have areas in which we feel really competent, and other areas where we feel incompetent. Put me in a room with a child for an hour, and I feel competent to build rapport at some point. We may even establish some co-regulation and a shared experience. I thrive in this type of situation. On the other hand, put me in a room with ten adults that I don’t know very well, and all I want to do is leave. I don’t feel very competent in my abilities to socialize with groups of people outside of my family, close friends, or profession. I avoid those types of situations when possible.
The funny thing about competence/incompetence is that you can see it manifested in people’s behavior. When people are feeling competent about their skills or abilities in a given activity, they are relaxed, happy, and more willing to participate. Things seem to go smoother, and the result is usually positive. When moments of competence are spotlighted, those memories are stored and can be used later to build new areas of competence.
When a person is feeling incompetent about their abilities in a given area, they may appear tense, sad, angry, or defiant. They may also have a more difficult time performing, or even refuse to participate. Many times when we see a negative behavior in a child, we think that s/he is just being defiant or naughty. In reality, what the child might be trying to communicate are feelings of incompetence. The child who complains about a task or says things like “This is so dumb” or “I hate this” may really be saying, “I feel incompetent. I need help.” It is much harder to engage a person who is feeling incompetent, and this can lead to negative outcomes. Unfortunately, a negative outcome creates negative memories that lead to even more feelings of incompetence, perpetuating the cycle.
So, what can be done to break the cycle of incompetence? The first thing I have parents work on with their child is to ensure that a guided participation relationship has been established between the adult and child. When the child has developed this type of relationship, s/he will trust that the parents will be there to guide and give support when s/he is feeling incompetent. How is this done? By starting with activities that are short, incorporating activities in which the child is already showing some competence and taking him/her to the next step all while providing enough support to make the child successful. Building new levels of competence, in areas where the child has already shown some competency builds a trusting guided participation relationship. Once this relationship is established, the guide can begin to introduce new activities; and the child will be more willing to attempt these tasks, knowing his guide will be there to support him. Recognizing the behavior that communicates feelings of incompetence can be the key in knowing how to support the child and break the cycle.