Know When to Step Away

Last Passover, my daughter received a 48-piece floor puzzle from our cousins. I didn’t let her open it that night since Isabelle had never done more than a 24-piece puzzle in the past past and I didn’t want her to get frustrated before the Seder. As soon as we got back to Pennsylvania, Isabelle wanted to play with the puzzle. My husband and I needed to unpack. I worried handing over the puzzle to Isabelle would delay our unpacking since she’d need adult assistance. But she begged to do the ballerina puzzle so I figured what the heck, removed the shrink wrap from the box, and let her have at it.

img_7040I had hoped Isabelle would use what she knew about puzzles to get started. I had hoped she’d find the corners. But she didn’t. Instead, she looked at the picture on the box and put together the center of the puzzle. Even though I’m not a puzzle master, I didn’t think that was the way to go. However, I kept my mouth shut I continued to unpack our suitcases.

img_7050I passed by a few more times and noticed she had found the edges to the puzzle. Therefore, I complimented her on what I noticed her doing well. Then I walked away.

img_7058Every now and then I’d walk by and would see her struggling to find the right piece to fit into the puzzle. She asked for help a few times. Instead of kneeling down to help, I encouraged her with my words. I reminded her to look back-and-forth between the pieces and the picture on the box when she needed help. I told her to try to match up the colors on the pieces with the colors in the puzzle. I encouraged her to rotate pieces to see if they fit.

After 45 minutes of working independently, Isabelle completed the puzzle ON HER OWN. She was proud of herself and requested photos of her and the completed puzzle!


It’s been many months since Isabelle tackled this ballerina puzzle. She’s working on more complicated puzzles now that she’s six-years-old. However, when I found these photos on my phone several days ago, I thought about the things my hands-off approach to Isabelle’s puzzle making had in common with the way we work with young writers.

  • Let the writer hold the pen. In other words, don’t take over! Sometimes we feel compelled to fix a piece of writing a student is working on. While that might help the piece of writing, it won’t help them become a stronger writer since the student becomes reliant upon the teacher to make changes. Put down your pen. Sit on your hands if you have to. Go ahead and coach the writer, but resist the temptation to fix up the writing in a child’s notebook or on their draft in the middle of a conference.
    • Do leave tangible artifacts or written reminders behind on sticky notes.
  • Sometimes a compliment is all a writer needs to keep going. Sometimes, when kids have a vision in mind, they need time and space to keep going. In order to keep them motivated, sometimes a quick compliment goes a long way to helping a child persevere with something that’s hard.
    • Need some open-ended language to help you with your conferences? Try printing this out and keeping this alongside you when you confer:
  • Provide suggestions. Rather than telling a writer what to do to make a piece better, we can provide several suggestions for a writer to think about. By presenting possibilities, we allow the writer to think about what will work best for him/her. Later, when we talk with the writer about the path they choose, we can ask them about what they did, how it went, and how they might do that same thing again in the future.

How do you resist the urge to take over when working with a child even when you know there’s a better to do something? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.