Saturday, November 6, 2010

The "Just-Right Challenge"

A just-right challenge is an activity that is just slightly above what a person is currently able to easily do.  It is an activity the person is able to do, but it requires a little bit of a stretch.  It is ideal for learning new daily living skills because it means that a person's strengths and abilities are used optimally, and independence with tasks is maximized.

A just-right challenge is a very careful balance between the challenge of the task and the skills of the person.  If the challenge of a task is too high and the skills of a person are too low, frustration is usually the result.  If the challenge of a task is too low and the skills of the person are too high, boredom is usually the result.  However, if the challenge of the task is equal to the skills of the person, he or she will experience a state of "flow" which is a motivating, engaging, and positive experience.

How do we find the just-right challenge?  The trouble is that just-right challenges are so individual - what works for one person will not work for another.  We need to first be able to assess what the individual's current abilities are.  Then we need to analyze the activity to be able to grade it to meet the client's level of functioning.  This is also complicated by the fact that people's levels of functioning can vary significantly - what is a just-right challenge one week may not be the next week.

If you suggest an activity that is not enough of a challenge, the person can find it degrading, and it can hurt the rapport you have.  It can also hurt the person's feelings of self-efficacy, feeling that you think he or she is not able to do more than that.  To avoid this situation, it is important to find out what the person is already doing, and to ensure that what you are suggesting is one step more difficult than that.

Often the situation I see is that the challenge of the task is too high for the skills of the individual.  The clinician asks the person to follow through with something, and when the person does not follow through, he or she is perceived as lacking motivation, or as not being ready to work on that goal. 

I once worked with a woman whose child had been apprehended by Child and Family Services.  She had specific instructions of what needed to be done to have her child returned to her.  However, she had not yet started following through on what was expected.  Her worker told me she thought the woman was "not ready", and she must not be as motivated as she said she was because she was not following through.

After speaking with the woman, I felt that she really was motivated - raising her child was the one thing that gave her life meaning and purpose.  The problem was that she was completely overwhelmed by what she had to do.  I helped her make a list of what needed to be done, break it down into smaller steps, prioritize the list, and decide on very specific small steps to take during the next week.  She worked really hard, and eventually her child was returned to her, and continues to bring meaning and purpose to her life.

It is not enough to make long-term and short-term goals.  We also have to figure out the first small step.  This small step might be doing only the first part of the activity (forward chaining), or doing the last part of the activity (backward chaining).  It might be role-playing a situation, visualizing it, or writing out a script to follow.  It might mean using adaptive equipment or modifying the environment.  It might mean following a checklist.  It definitely means being flexible - some days, just getting out of bed might be a just-right challenge.

I think we all can benefit from thinking about just-right challenges in our lives.  What is it that you have been putting off doing lately?  Making a phone call?  Going to the gym?  Cleaning your house?  Perhaps you could start with finding the phone number, putting on your gym clothes, or deciding to clean just one small area.

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