Just Right Challenge

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In the field of occupational therapy, there is an intervention concept known as the “just right challenge”. In this blog post, we’ll cover what this challenge means and how we can best support clients and patients by meeting their needs and abilities at just the right level of intervention. Occupational therapy interventions cover a vast variety of levels of care, client needs, daily occupations, and environments. With a level of support and challenge that fosters growth, development, and self-sufficiency, therapy providers can support all of these differences.

just right challenge

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The Just Right Challenge

How often do you feel “just right”?  Not too hot, not too cold, not too hungry or full, comfy clothes, hair just right. 

It is not often that everything is in sync, but when it is, that feeling of ease is delightful. It is called the just right “challenge”, because it is just that. 

It is difficult to find balance.  This post will explore the just right challenge, its importance, and how to better achieve it.

What is the “Just Right Challenge”?

Occupational therapy providers have a lot of terms, medical definitions, theories, and interventions in their toolbox. One of those therapeutic tools is the “just right challenge”.

The Just Right Challenge is a phrase that describes a therapeutic activity at a level that is challenging enough to help an individual develop their skills, but not so challenging that it becomes frustrating or overwhelming.

The idea is to find an activity that is at the appropriate level of difficulty for the child, so they can experience success while still being challenged to improve their skills.

The “just right challenge” can be adapted to suit a child’s individual needs and abilities, and can be used in a variety of therapeutic activities, such as play, sports, and self-care tasks.

This concept is a key component of Ayres Sensory Integration intervention as a way to support sensory needs that meet the individual needs of the child.

Examples of the Just Right Challenge for Kids

To understand the struggle finding this balance can pose, we can offer examples.

One simple example of the just right challenge is that of Goldilocks and the 3 bears. It’s likely we all know the story: Goldilocks tries out the chair, bed, and porridge of three bears. She finds Papa Bear’s items too hard or too big, or too hot. She finds Mama bear’s items too soft, too small, or too cold. She tries and finds Baby bear’s items just right.

Another example is in the Berenstain Bears book, (Amazon affiliate link) Old Hat, New Hat. In this cute children’s book, Papa Berenstain is shopping for a new hat.  He spends all day in the shop trying on different hats.  Despite all of his efforts, none of them feel just right. They are too beady, too bumpy, too leafy, too lumpy, too twisty, too twirly, too checkered, too curly.  Eventually Papa decides on a hat that feels “just right”.  It turns out to be his old comfy hat, but that works for him. 

Still another way to illustrate this, is by taking a look at this classic Ernie and Bert video from Sesame Street. Ernie is trying to split a piece of Licorice to share with Bert.  He splits them unevenly at first, so he takes a bite of one to make them even.  They are still not even, so he takes a bite of the other.  This continues until guess what, there is no candy left. Of course, this is silly because everyone knows, one divides, the other decides.  Or how about a ruler to measure, if it is critical these pieces are the same size. The bigger takeaway is that no matter what Ernie does, he can not find the just right challenge.  Too big, too small, too uneven, just not right.

You have probably experienced the just right level of input in your daily tasks, too. If you are trying to learn a new skill, it is very possible to get “burned out” by too many repetitions, too much effort, or by too much thinking about the problem at hand. What needs to happen? Taking a break, trying less or different efforts, and returning to the task at another time with a different level of intensity.

I am sure many of you have experienced this when trying on new shoes or bathing suits. 

Clothing, food, a new couch, or even a book can be just not right. It’s too loose, too tight, too scratchy, too bright, too hard, too soft, too weird, too long, too short, too wrong. 

The big deal about finding the just right challenge, is one choice has an effect on many other things.  Not having new shoes can hurt your feet.  Having the wrong shoes can put you off balance, rub blisters, affect your mood and concentration, as you shift focus to the shoes, instead of where you are going.

Have you ever felt this way?  No matter what you do, you don’t feel just right? Something feels off, but it is hard to describe what it is, or how to fix it.  These are the non-concrete examples.  Much of it has to do with arousal level.

How to use the Just Right Challenge

It is definitely a challenge to find just right. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. What works for one learner, may not work for the next.  The treatment that works one day, backfires the next day, for the very same learner.  This is very frustrating for caregivers and therapists. 

Evaluate- The first step is determining the child’s current levels. Use appropriate evaluation tools and screening tools to determine present levels.

Establish goals- Work with the child, the parent/guardian, and the team to establish SMART goals based on environment. Take into consideration any accommodations and modifications in place.

Set the child up for success- The goal is to create mini challenges for the individual that allows them to achieve small successes. You can break down goals to support skill achievement. This allows the child to gradually improve on their goals, while seeing the benefits of continual work on targets.

Trial and error – There will likely be efforts that are too hard or too easy. Keep the lines of communication open and get feedback from the individual. Try least restrictive to most restrictive. Use body feedback as a tool before adding external modifications like more easier or difficult tasks, heavier weights, compression garments, or headphones, distant copying/near point copying, etc.

Change what you can – Make incremental changes to the environment, supports, all while offering feedback and encouragement:

  1. Offering positive reinforcement: Provide positive feedback and reinforcement to encourage the child’s progress and motivate them to continue working towards their goals. Levels of feedback can change over the course of the challenge.
  2. Change the activity: Modify or adapt the activity or the environment to make it more accessible for the child or to provide additional challenges.

Try playing with different levels of challenge until your learner gets the input they are looking for. Experiment while cooking to get the perfect taste.

Backward chaining is a teaching strategy that can be used to help children learn new skills, such as dressing, grooming, or completing a task. It involves breaking down the task into small steps and teaching the child to complete the last step first. Then, the child is gradually taught to complete the steps that come before it until they can complete the entire task independently.

This approach can help children feel more successful as they are able to accomplish the final step, and it also helps to build confidence and motivation to learn the preceding steps. By gradually working backward, children are more likely to learn the entire sequence of steps and feel a sense of accomplishment as they achieve success in completing the task independently.

A final note on the just right challenge for kids…

When we seek to find the right level of challenge for the kids we serve, we can offer a level of difficulty that creates a goal for the child, while not pushing the child too far that they feel overwhelmed. We always want to offer strategies and tools to support the individual while ensuring that the activity’s demands match the child’s ability level.

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

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