Teaching Leadership and Empathy with Crafts

How do parents (and teachers) help kids to learn? Researchers in education have written for decades about a process called “scaffolding,” in which an adult helps children to develop a skill by helping them to do something that they can't do independently. Even though scaffolding usually refers to the guidance provided by an adult to a child, in many families, there are older siblings who provide guidance to their younger brothers and sisters - and researchers have found that peer scaffolding has benefits for both the expert and the novice!

Cynthia Fair and her colleagues examined the effects of peer scaffolding in a study published in the April 2005 issue of Early Child Development and Care. The researchers formed groups with one or two third-graders and a four year-old; the older children met with the preschoolers once per month for a year to teach them how to do various crafts. After spending some time with their “buddy,” the mentors wrote in a journal about the experience, answering questions such as, “What advice would you give to next year’s third grade class about how to be a good older buddy?”

Fair and her colleagues found that 8 and 9 year-olds were able to provide sensitive, age-appropriate scaffolding to the younger kids. Not only that, but they generally enjoyed the experience, with many writing in their journals that there was no “least favorite” part of their time with their buddies, even though there were some complaints that the four year-olds had trouble paying attention. The students’ advice to other mentors fell into two main categories: giving sensitive scaffolding, and showing respect and kindness to the younger child.

Many of the older kids in the study generally recognized the value of learning how to work with younger children, and felt that they had fun while learning lessons that would be important later in their lives. They demonstrated empathy and a conscious awareness of the best way to help their young buddies develop their skills, indicating in their journal the importance of “stepping back.” The title of Fair’s article provides insight into the benefits of providing opportunities for older children to teach their younger peers: “I learned how little kids think.

Websites like Allison McDonald’s “No Time for Flash Cards” provide excellent educational craft projects for parents to do with their kids. Fair’s results suggest that older siblings might learn important lessons about empathy and leadership from teaching their little brothers and sisters how to do the activities! It’s possible that the reflection time provided by the journal-writing was helpful … perhaps if parents talk to the “mentor” about advice they’d give to other experts could allow them to think about the perspective-taking required when helping someone to develop a new skill.

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