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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA

When Children's Skills Vary from Day to Day

We've all been baffled by a child who seems to have mastered a skill one day, such as tying the laces on their shoes, but seems to completely forget the process the next day. The famous Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, termed this on-again, off-again, skill-building time as the Zone of Proximal Development for a given ability. Jean Piaget considered this gray area to come about through the influence of intrinsic and environmental factors.

It would seem both of these developmentalists are correct. But where does this leave us? What can we do when a child masters foundational scissors skills one day, then completely forgets how to hold the scissors. We can take advice from both Vygotsky and Piaget. Skills, it seems, do come and go as they begin. Also, despite having an intrinsic skill, there are many environmental factors that can negatively influence whether or not a child can access these skills.

The graph below is a visual depiction of the way a child's skills can be influenced by negative environmental factors. For example, if a child is tired, then reading letters that were easy for him on Tuesday, might be impossible to master Thursday. Alternatively, a child can behave well, sit, listen, do his work at school, holding it together all day long. And then she may fall to pieces when she gets home and finds that her brother borrowed her favorite markers.

What Can We Do About This?

1- Cut Them Slack

Kids, like us, are doing their best. Some days are just plain better than others. If a child is struggling, make a mental or written note of it, and move on, not worrying about it quite yet. But if inconsistency continues, it may be necessary to talk parents to better understand the problem or even time to consider evaluations by other professionals within your school.

2- Try to Understand What's Going On and Address It:

Sometimes a problem may be obvious. Perhaps a grandparent or parent has been hospitalized or a sibling hurt. But many of the elements listed in the visual above are not easy to tease out of diagnose. Auditory processing issues may mean that a child is not understanding directions correctly. Visual issues may cause a child's eyes to tire so that he cannot focus as needed for more than a few minutes when reading.

Consider thinking of problems that a child may be having in three different categories: A- Personal (home and family) B- Medical (sickness, chemical imbalances, undiagnosed medical issues, such as celiac disease or low iron) C- Sensory processing/ Learning disabilities/ Processing challenges (school staff and other professionals can test to determine if these issues are present). Thinking, and playing detective with our kids, may make it easier to try to tease out what is going on.

Your Takeaway:

When a child is upset, think about his physical needs first. Is he hungry? Is he overtired? Sometimes our role is to simply support kids as they struggle when things are not right in their lives. One of the most important things you can do is to offer kids some quiet time to allow them to self-regulate. What is calming to a particular child? Does a cozy space offer respite? Or perhaps headphones and a favorite book? Does it help if you try to co-regulate with a child, showing him how to take deep breaths as you take some with him?

Kids will do better in school when they are able to relax and pull themselves together.

Feel welcome to leave a comment! What are your favorite go-to Halloween fine motor activities? What tasks do your students or kids struggle with? Get in touch by e-mail at

Are you following Kids Master Skills on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram? Keep up to date as I post more tips to help teachers, parents, and therapists help kids master skills!

For a variety of skill-building resources, check out my store on Teachers Pay Teachers at

Lisa Marnell MBA, MS, OTR/L

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