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Picture of a dad teaching his daughter to be independent with procedural language.

Learn How to Train An Independent Child with Procedural Language and Problem-Solving

Picture of a parent raising an independent child with procedural language.
Procedural language can help you coach your child to be a competent and independent problem-solver.

If you have dependent children then you almost certainly know how hard it can be to get them to do anything. Getting ready for bed, getting ready for school, getting ready for anything—it’s usually a disorganized mess. Sometimes they need close supervision and help every step of the way. Other times, they actively resist your direction. How can you be better at raising an independent child? Critical thinking skills and good habits are effective at making children more capable and less dependent.

One major key lies in how you talk them through these tasks: the difference between activity language and procedural language.

In this blog you will learn the following:

  • Why do children have trouble completing many types of activities?
  • What is the difference between activity language and procedural language?
  • How can you use procedural and activity language to effectively coach an independent child?

Why’s It So Hard for Children to Complete Simple Chores?

Every one of us has the same cognitive skills that have been developed  or trained to different degrees. These are the fundamental skills central to all thought and problem-solving. We even use skills like shape recognition and sequencing for unconscious functions like breathing.

We also use these skills to form templates for how we deal with similar situations. After enough practice and repetition that template becomes an unconscious process that our brain can go through without us even having to think about it. A good example is how you stop having to consciously think of how to ride a bike.

When a child is born they start with no cognitive skills and lack the templates that we’ve all built in our minds. Babies can’t even recognize faces when they are first born. Their brains must form a template for recognizing a face, usually starting with their mother’s. Over time they develop their shape recognition further, letting them unconsciously recognize many people’s faces on sight.

In general, there are four stages to building these templates and becoming competent in a task:

  • Unconsciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Competent
  • Unconsciously Competent.

You start out unconsciously incompetent, unaware there’s even lack of skill. Then you become consciously incompetent and begin working on developing that skill. Eventually you become consciously competent and can think through each step and correctly complete the task. Finally, you’ve had enough practice that your brain saves a template of what to do, and you become unconsciously competent, capable of doing the task without having to think through the details.

Parents often have trouble seeing this dynamic. They wonder to themselves, “What’s so hard about this simple task I’ve asked my child to do?” That’s because the parent has become unconsciously competent at those tasks. Parents take for granted that the individual steps have become automatic for them. As a result, they have trouble communicating with their child who doesn’t have this template yet.

What Is Activity Language vs. Procedural Language?

Picture of a dad teaching his daughter to be independent with procedural language.
Using procedural language to build strong templates is key to good coaching.

This issue isn’t unique to parenting. It’s a problem that comes up in any situation where someone is teaching or coaching someone else. Have you ever had a teacher or coach who was bad at communicating how to do the things they’re good at? A baseball coach who reduces batting to “just hit the ball” or a teacher who couldn’t understand why you were having trouble with a math problem?

Professionals have gotten to the point to where they’re operating in activity language. Since they are unconsciously competent, they can simply say something like “find the derivative of this equation” or “shoot a 3-pointer”. In their minds this already includes the whole template they’ve developed with all the component procedures that make up that task. This isn’t helpful when you don’t have that template yet

It’s similar to when you tell your child to clean up, or make their bed or set the table for dinner. This is activity language for children. It includes an entire list of procedures that together form a template which you have but your kid doesn’t. As a result, this task doesn’t seem like something they can do—they don’t know the steps, so they’re not sure of themselves, so they don’t do it.

This is why all effective sports training and other coaching gets down to the level of procedural language. Coaches get down to the specifics of exactly how to move and position your body, what details and steps you have to go through in order to perform the activity correctly. “Lower your stance, hands lower on the bat,” etc.

So, how can you bring procedural language into your parenting to raise an independent child?

Raise an Independent Child with the Help of Teaching Procedural Language

Picture of a mom learning how to raise an independent child with the use of procedural language.
Critical Thinking for Success trains cognitive skills and teaches you to be a better coach to your kids.

When you tell your child to clean the table after dinner, think: what are all the steps and procedures for completing this activity? You may know but your child doesn’t.

Refer back to our previous post on teaching your kids independent problem-solving using the 3 M’s: Model, Mentor, and Monitor. Before you expect your children to do tasks on their own you have to model it for them and show them all the individual procedures.

When it comes to teaching a child how to clean a table, think about “what do you do first?” Clear away the dishware. More specific, though: how do you stack and hold these things safely? Where do you put them? What next? Where do you get the sponge from? How do you get it wet? How do you squeeze out the water? What are the proper motions for using a sponge well?

You child doesn’t start with an innate knowledge of any of this. To effectively help them build their templates and their cognitive skills, you have to get down to this procedural language and model each of these steps for them. This is critical to raising an independent child who is capable of doing this tasks on their own.

You can then continue with the next two steps of the 3 M’s: mentoring (doing it together) and monitoring (letting them do it while you’re there to watch). One idea that may be helpful is to document each step or procedure of the activity with photographs of them doing it. Print the photos and then together you can both put steps in order. What did you do first to clean the table? What did you do next? Once you’ve done this, you can put this visual template up where your child can see it and use it as a guide.

By following this method of using procedural language before you graduate to activity language, you’ll help teach an independent child competence by building up their mental templates. You’ll also help them develop key cognitive skills like sequencing and logic These skills will make them better at using critical thinking to solve problems and make plans.

Here at Critical Thinking for Success, we work with you to develop those cognitive skills through specialized cognitive behavioral training. This helps you configure your brain for growth and change. We also conduct parenting classes that teach you how to be a better coach to your children. These classes teach how to break tasks down to make them easier for children to learn and how to develop their cognitive skills with different games and exercises. This series is currently running at the Chicago Montessori and we can arrange to conduct the courses on-site for your own group of parents or teachers as well.

If you want to help raise an independent child who has the skills to become capable adult, or if you want to learn how to be a better coach for them, give Critical Thinking for Success a call!

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