Interview about Kid’ Skills for the Chinese magazine Mother-Child Health

Can you explain Kids’ Skills in a fun way? Why is called “skills”?

Kids’ Skills is method that helps you to develop, in collaboration with the child, a playful and fun solution to the child’s problem. The method is called in English Kids’ Skills because the name “I can do” was occupied. In other languages the method is called “I can do”. It is nice that in English the name of the method has the word “skill” in it because the method is based on the idea that the best way for children to overcome problems is to learn skills that will make the problems disappear.

Why does Kids’ Skills include 15 steps? Is there a special reasons?

Kids’ Skills is a collection of good ideas of how to help children overcome problems. When we started to develop Kids’ Skills we collected the best ideas that we had found in the field, some from other people and some that we had discovered ourselves. We tested many ideas, kept the good ones and discarded the ones that didn’t work so well. One can say that the Kids’ Skills is composed of 15 steps because these steps were the most useful ideas that we found.

Are there any secrets to applying these 15 steps successfully?

Yes. There is a secret and the word that best describes this secret is collaboration. Kids’ Skills is not something you do to a child. It is not a parenting or child raising method. It is a set of guidelines about how to talk with children about their problems in a way that inspires children to become interested in and motivated to solving their own problem.

Why Finnish education is so successful? What are the secrets?

There are many theories of why the Finnish educational system has succeeded so well in international comparisons and I cannot list them all. However, I would like to think that at best the Finnish educational system and Kids’ Skills share some features. Both are based on the idea that children learn best when they are allowed to help each other and when they feel that they have some say in what to learn and how to learn it.

What are the key points to keep in mind when applying Kids’ Skills to different situations?

You can use Kids’ Skills with all kinds of problems. And as we all know, children all over the world have all kinds of problems. They have problems with sleeping, with eating, with using the toilet, with behavior… they have bad habits, they have school problems… the list is endless. Whatever the problem is, you can always stop and think: what skill does the child need to learn in order to overcome his problem. So for example, if the child has the bad habit of interrupting other people, you start the process by asking what the child needs to learn in order not to have that problem. In this case the answer is simple. He needs to learn to ask for permission to talk and wait patiently till he gets that permission. Sometimes it is not that easy to find the answer to the question what skill will make the problem disappear. That is why we offer training and coaching in Kids’ Skills as well as a book with many stories of how people have used Kids’ Skills to help children of all ages to overcome problems of all kinds. The stories are perhaps the best way to understand the idea that children don’t really have problems at all. They just have skills to learn and whatever skill the child needs to learn, it is always possible to learn it in a way that is appealing to child.

How to apply these 15 steps in practice? Here are some examples of problems that are quite common.

My son is timid, feeling weak. He doesn’t feel like talking to others whenever taking him to visit other families, or in the kindergarten. I don’t think he is not capable of performing, as he can sing many English songs pretty fluently.  He just doesn’t like to be the center of attention. As parents, what skill do we need to help him develop? 

When I meet parents who tell me that their child is shy, or timid, I always start a discussion about whether shyness is a problem or not. I explain that some people are by nature more shy than others and that as such shyness is not a problem. It can also be seen as a personality trait. For example, in Japan many girls are proud of being shy. In America it is the other way around. Girls and boys are expected to be extrovert, talkative and social. Once the parents understand that shyness is not necessarily a problem, I want to find out what the child thinks about his shyness. Does he want to learn to become braver? Does he want to become better at talking with other people? Many children do want to learn to be braver. They understand that becoming better at talking with other people would make them happier and would make it easier for them to make friends.

You can see, that I am already shifting from talking about shyness to talking about developing courage to talk with other people. I am shifting from the problem to talking about a skill to learn. Children don’t like to talk about problems but they like to talk about skills to learn. If the child indicates that this is skill that he wants to learn, we can move on to developing, together with the child, a project for him to improve his skill, or bravery, of talking with other people.

Kids’ Skills helps us to think about how to develop such a project with the child. We would ask the child to think about all the wonderful benefits of learning to talk with almost anyone, we would ask him to give a name that skill, to decide who will be his supporters and what power creature will help him, etc. We would also talk with him about what it means to him to be brave and how he will be behaving differently when he is brave. Once we would have a clear idea of how he would be behaving when he is brave, we can start brainstorming about how to practice this skill. Children are often very good in coming up with ideas of how to learn things. A shy child can start to practice bravery, for example, by playing with puppets. We could play a game where there is a teacher puppet, a shy boy puppet and a brave boy puppet. The child can then play with the puppets to show first how the shy puppet talks to the teacher and then how the brave puppet talks to the teacher. There are endless possibilities of practicing various social skills with children.

My child is late from kindergarten every day, which is a headache for us. We tried all different ways to make him quicker, but none of them works. E.g., brush teeth, it only takes 3 minutes, he could take more than 10 minutes to get it done. Can we use Kids’ Skills to help him?

In principle you can use Kids’ Skills to solve any problem that can be converted into a skill to learn. In this case the skill is to become quicker at getting ready in the morning. If you try to force a child to become quicker you may find that the child becomes slower rather than quicker but if you design, together with him, a game of quickness, your chances of success are better. Firemen are really quick. When the alarm goes, they put on their working clothes very quickly, they slide down the bar (not enough time to take the stairs) and they run to the car which may already be moving. In this case the name of the skill could be the “fireman skill”. Supporters could include the grandparents, a few friends and maybe even a real fireman if such a person would be available. The father could have the role of taking time with a stopwatch and maybe mother could be the person who films the “little fireman” practicing his skill. The whole thing could become a really fun game that ends with a celebration with the boy visiting the fire station with his friends.

My child is impatient, sometimes quite impulsive. He can’t get along well with other kids. Or other kids don’t like to play with my kid.  But I know that my kid wants to learn getting along with others kids, to play together. Since he needs to learn to control his emotion, and treat others friendly, it’s a process and takes time. How could we help him to establish his confidence about it?

I have found that learning to play with other children is a very complex skill that consists of many smaller skills including “how to greet other children” “how to ask another child to play with you” “how to respond if the other child does not want to play with you”. When children have difficulties playing with other children you may need to observe the child to see what specific skill the child is lacking. For example, if the child has difficulty in dealing with the situation in which other children do not want to play with him even if he asks them kindly, then the skill is to learn to respond in a good way to “no”. This is a skill that children can learn. In a role play the mother can play the other child and the child can play himself. The child asks the other child: “Do you want to play with me?” and the other child (mother) says: “No I don’t want to play with you.” Now let’s see how the child responds. What would be a bad way of responding? What would be a better way of responding? Many children, and not only children, also many adults, need to learn the skill of taking “no” for an answer. You need to learn to say something like: “Ok, maybe another time” or “ok, will try to find someone else to play with.” It’s not an easy skill to learn but it is an important skill to have and with all the different steps of Kids’ Skills we can ensure that the child enjoys learning the skill.

Can you tell us another 2-3 interesting stories? So that reader can understand your explanation better.

I have written a book with a rich variety of Kids’ Skills stories called Kids’ Skills in Action that has been translated to Chinese. Typically a Kids’ Skills story, if it includes all the 15 steps of the process, spans over two or more pages in a book so it is not easy to tell full Kids’ Skills stories shortly. But I will try. One of my favorite stories was told by a mother of a seven-year-old boy. The mother showed the boy the Kids’ Skills workbook and asked the boy if he would like to try this interesting method for helping children overcome problems. The boy agreed. The mother asked the boy what problem he has that he would like to solve. He said he is a afraid of dogs and would like to overcome his fear so he could visit friends who have dogs and accept invitations to birth day parties to classmates who have dogs. The mother said: “Oh, I said wrong. I said problems, but this method is not really about solving problems but about learning skills. So what skill do you need to learn to overcome your fear of dogs?” The boy thought for a minute and then said: “Hmm. I guess I need to let them come close to me and sniff me.” “That sounds good”, said the mother, “I will write it here.” From here everything was downhill. The boy asked his mother, father and grandmother and two neighbor girls to be his supporters. He made a plan to celebrate with his supporters when he has learned the skill: he would invite everyone to their home and grandmother would make a carrot cake. He started practicing his skill the following day. When he saw that the neighbor walked her dog, he pulled his mother’s sleeve, and said: “Let’s go!” Mother said: “Where do you want to go?” “Hurry up”, said the boy, “The neighbor is coming with the dog. Let’s go to practice!” And that is what they did. They went out and waited for the dog to come close to the boy. When the dog approached, the boy assumed a position that allowed him to hide his hands and his face, and then allowed the dog to come close to him and sniff him. The dog soon lost his interest in the boy and went away with its owner. The boy got up and looked very proud. The mother said: “I cannot believe what I just saw! You did it!” The boy said: “Let’s go home and call grandmother to tell her what I just did.” And when they called the grandmother she was happy to hear the good news. She said : “I cannot believe it! You can really be proud of your accomplishment. Encouraged by the experience the boy continued to practice his skill and within two weeks he was so good at it that the family arranged the celebration that he had been planned at the start.

Can this method be used with smaller children, those who are only 2-3 years old?

Yes, with slight modifications it is possible to use Kids’ Skills with smaller children. One possibility is to play a game with the child where you tell the child that a puppet has exactly the same problem that the child has. So for example, you would say: “The name is this puppet is Luigi. Luigi has a problem. He does not go to toilet and therefore his trousers are wet. He does not want to have wet trousers so we have teach Luigi to go to toilet. How shall we teach him to go to toilet?”

It is easier for small children to think of solutions when it is a puppet or a teddy bear that has the problem. For example one boy in a kindergarten, who was only three years old, had the problem of wetting his pants every day. When he was discussing the problem in this manner with his teacher, together with his teacher he came up with the idea that the teacher can give him a sign a few times during the day, and when he gets that sign he will go to the bathroom and speak to the toilet. He will ask the toilet if the toilet wants his pee. If the toilet says, “No I don’t need your pee”, he can go to play. If the toilet says, “Yes, please give me some pee” he will pull down his pants and pee in the toilet. The whole problem was turned into a fun game and he learned the skill of using the toilet in a matter of two weeks.

I know my child needs to learn a skill to boost his self-confidence.  The question is – how do I know what skill he would be interested in learning? And to make sure that the skill would boost his self- confidence boost?

When I teach Kids’ Skills I like to speak about big skills and small skills. Skills such as “having good self confidence”, “being able to play nicely with other children”, or “being able to concentrate” are very big and therefore very difficult to learn. So when adults come up with the idea that the child needs to learn a big skill, I always start by breaking that skill down to small skills. A question that I often ask parents is: “How would you know that he has better self confidence?” or “Who would be the first one to notice that his self confidence is better? What would be different? What would be the first sign that he is developing better self-confidence?” In this way you can start to find out what it is that the parents want the child to learn. Self-confidence can mean very different things to different people. Suppose the parents say: “We know his self-confidence is starting to become better when he can accept our compliments and be proud of some things that he has done.” This is a more concrete way of talking and very quickly gives us ideas of what skills the child might want to learn. For example, the skill of being happy when you get a compliment from adults is not only a good skill to have but also a fun skill to learn. Would it not be nice to design, together with the whole family, a game where everyone gives each other compliments and thanks each other for receiving compliments from each other. The idea with Kids’ Skills is that learning social and psychological skills can be a lot of fun. But remember to avoid big skills and look for small skills instead, so small that they are easy to learn and fun to practice together with friends and family.

When kid determines to learn a skill, how can we keep his interest long enough to practice until he masters it and proves that it becomes his habit?

This is an important question that people often ask me. It is not easy to answer because all children are different and you would typically motivate one child differently than another. But there are some tricks that work with most children. The first one is to give children immediate positive feedback. I often recommend hand signals such as “thumbs up” because you can give them immediately when you see that the child is using the skill he is learning. Some children are extremely motivated by the idea of a celebration. For example, a four year old suddenly wanted to learn to sleep in her own bed when the mother suggested that they could organize a party for her when she has been sleeping a whole week in her own bed. I personally think that one of the best ways to keep the motivation up is to make sure the skill is a small skill that the child will not have to struggle to learn. Often children have first learned some really small skill just to learn how the system works. Once they have the hang of it, they understand how Kids’ Skills work, they can pick a more difficult skill to learn next time. But maybe the most important motivator of all is that you involve other children in the process. Children are more motivated to show their friends that they have a skill than they are to show the same thing to their parents or teacher. So my suggestion is to always include some other children, preferably a few years older children, to be supporters for the child. If things don’t work the way you have hoped for, you can always have a meeting with the child and his friends and ask them to find a solution to the problem. “What shall we do to help Liam continue with practicing his skill? Do you have any ideas of how we can help him to keep up the good work?”

Sometimes, when we use Kids’ Skills to help our child to learn a skill, and he practices for a while and indeed shows a big improvement, but suddenly loose his interested in practicing, or have a setback, what shall we do to encourage him go back to the track?

It’s hard to know why this happens in a given case but usually the reason is very obvious: you are trying to do Kids’ Skills to a child rather than Kids’ Skills with the child. The whole idea with Kids’ Skills is that you try to talk with the child in a way that makes him want to solve his own problem. So you talk about a skill to learn and make sure the child understands exactly what skill you want him to learn. You can for example make a role play with a puppet representing a child who does not have the skill and another role-play of puppet who has the skill. The child needs to understand what skill parents want him to learn. The next step is to ask the child if the child wants to learn the skill or not. Usually children do want to learn skills that their parents want them to learn if they understand why it is important for them to learn that skill. That is why one of the steps in Kids’ Skills is to have a talk with the child about why it is important for the child to learn the skill. If despite this preparation the child says: “I don’t want to learn that skill” it may be best to say: “So is there another skill that you think that it is even more important to learn?” Allow the child to be the master. You are just a helper. In some cases, when children have not been interested in learning skills, we have agreed with the family that not only the child learns a skill but all family members have a skill to learn and all will be supporters for each other. In this model the child is not special but just one family member in a fun game where all family members are learning some skill in order to be happier and to make their family happier too!

How to stabilize the skill that a child has mastered? Or make the skill a good habit?

We have looked for ways to stabilize learning and found two good methods, which we have included into the steps of Kids’ Skills. The first one is the celebration. We invite the child to plan a celebration with all his supporters to celebrate the fact that he has learned his new skill. The celebration is a kind of social confirmation where the new skill is announced to others. There are some congratulations and maybe even some speeches. Often the child thanks all his supporters for helping him learn his skills. The celebration is one way of reinforcing change but it is not fool proof. It can still happen that some time later the child loses his skill and goes back to the old problems behavior. Therefore we have included one more step, a step where we ask the child to teach his skill to someone else or to become a supporter for another child who is learning the same skill that he has learned. This idea is based on the old wisdom that says that if you want to learn something really well, you have to teach it to someone else. I think there is more ways of making sure new behaviors stick but those are the two we have found so effective that we have included them in the method.