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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.




Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who focuses on writing workshop. I've been working with K-6 teachers and students since 2009. Prior to that, I was a fourth and fifth-grade teacher in New York City and Rhode Island.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

I live in Central Pennsylvania with my husband and children. In my free time, I enjoy swimming, doing Pilates, cooking, baking, making ice cream, and reading novels.

25 thoughts on “Know When to Step Away Leave a comment

  1. Sometimes we need to sit on our hands and bite our tongues. It is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Well chosen prompting can scaffold the learner. Thank-you Stacey, this post is such a good reminder.


  2. Wow, your blog really spoke to me on so many levels. I have a student teacher for the first time & my goal is to step away for the rest of the week in order to allow him to blossom.


    • It is challenging to step away and let a student teacher teach. I remember when I handed over the reigns, completely, to a student teacher. I wasn’t even in the classroom (I was across the hall.) when I did it. However, it’s a necessary step in making sure they’re able to manage a classroom full of kids.


  3. Thank you for this! I definitely am printing off the cheat sheet! However, I’m also thinking of sharing this story (I hope you don’t mind) next year at our curriculum night with the parents of the students in my class. I think it’s a powerful message that works across all curriculum and for not just teachers, but parents, since it often starts at home! When asked by classroom parents each year, “How much should we be helping with homework at home?”, I always share my own personal story of growing up & how my fabulous mother sat and corrected every piece of homework and every report (I won’t even go into my science fair project) up until Freshman year of high school & how distraught I was when she said she couldn’t help me anymore. All those years I went to school extremely confident I had the correct answers and great work and then when she stopped helping me, I didn’t know how to do anything on my own confidently, without having someone check it. Bless my mother’s heart b/c she thought she was helping me, but looking back, what I learned was helplessness and dependence and not confidence. As a 41 year old teacher, it has taken me a very long time to try to overcome what was set in place when I was a child, and I still struggle with it to this day- asking other teachers to read an email before sending it or report card comments before printing them or being surprised when someone comments that my work is good. I cannot agree with you enough on all the advice you give, we want children today to be strong and confident, we need them to be strong and confident, it’s one of the reasons I did want to become a teacher!


  4. This is a great analogy, Stacey! I would add that after using some of those helpful prompts you provided in your beautiful cheat sheet, it’s important that we ask writers, “Let me see you try that.” Pushing writers to apply your teaching in front of you is so important! Great post!


  5. Love this! For me, perhaps the most important piece is the last “providing suggestions” – emphasizing “suggestions” and not “rules”. I am like you with the puzzle, often certain that there is a ‘best’ way (do the corners and edges first) but I work hard to swallow my ‘know it all’ and set them free. When they are challenged/stuck, this is a great time for suggestions. I continue to be excited and dazzled by those who do things differently than I would – and do it fabulously, like Isabelle!


  6. This is a powerful blog post. As a writer, most of my favorite moments is when I finally solve the puzzle of a manuscript, and it all comes together. When we tell young writers exactly what to do, we rob them of that powerful “ah ha” moment. Kudos to you for finding ways to support writers as they solve their own puzzles.


  7. Great connections between personal experience that reinforces a “classroom” lesson. Sometimes in our hurray to be helpful we forget to let our students experience frustration and discover their strengths.


  8. I love how you told a personal story and then tied with suggestion for young writers. While I do not teach writing any more, this relates to working with adult learners and the importance of faciliating and coaching instead of “telling.”


  9. Sometimes I literally have to put my hand over my mouth or my hands under the desk to stop the urge to “fix it for them”. This piece is such a powerful reminder of what kids CAN do when we let them.


  10. I love how you supported Isabelle with your words to guide. Her perseverance is to be commended! 45 minutes of working alone…wow! I also like how to related it to writing. It’s so true. We teach the writer not the writing. Thanks for the reminders!


  11. Thank you! I am working on stepping back right now as my students finish up writing their final drafts of an argument piece. I am going to use your conferring sheet right now!


  12. You have a real knack for relating your personal stories to writing. I’ve been thinking a lot about that! I enjoy it and have found my brain doesn’t quite think like that… yet!


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