The Gentle Challenge

The Gentle Challenge

For the first two years of primary school, one little girl I know would not talk to her teachers. Even when close friends of the family greeted her, she looked down and said nothing. Although she couldn’t explain what was wrong, her dad sensed her overwhelming anxiety. He needed a way to help her change her behaviour, but more importantly, he needed a way to help her realize that being noticed by people doesn’t have to be scary. One day he had a small brain wave.

“Here’s the deal. People like to see you smile, but you don’t like doing the talking. How about when someone greets you, you do the smiling, and I’ll do the talking?”

“Hi Sarah*. How are you?”

“Hello Mr. Duncan,” Her dad said. He looked down at the little girl and gently squeezed her hand. She flashed just the briefest of smiles.

Mr. Duncan smiled back.

I didn’t know at the time, but this was an example of what Mary Dozier from the University of Delaware calls the gentle challenge. Since then, I have come to realize this is one of the most important goals in building a relationship with a child who has been maltreated. As Dozier says, it is about gently challenging their worldview (1). In terms of attachment, it is a way of helping children revise their internal working model.

Children who have been maltreated often have distorted expectations and beliefs about self and others. Bowlby observed that these models are established in the first few years of life. As children get older, they become increasingly resistant to change. “The necessary revisions of model are not always easy to achieve. Usually they are completed but only slowly, often they are done imperfectly, and sometimes not done at all” (2). In addition, adults are too easily pulled towards responding in a way that confirms their existing worldview.

The gentle challenge can only take place in the context of a trusting relationship. This, in and of itself, is a complicated task and one that challenges the young person’s worldview. It is important that the adult can empathize with the young person and has some ideas of what kinds of beliefs and expectations a young person is communicating through their behaviour. The gentle challenge is often used in response to a young person who is showing some kind of resistance to relating to others.

Harry had been moved to a new high school, but the honeymoon hadn’t lasted long. He was suspended, and as I drove him home, my mind went back over the years to the little, angry boy I first met in primary school. Harry had fixed ideas about himself and others. When his head teacher retired, Harry told me with all sincerity that he had ruined his head teacher’s life. I tried not to smile, but in my imagination I pictured his head teacher sitting in the sun on a cruise ship sipping a glass of something fizzy. Harry was convinced that teachers disliked him, because he believed he was a bad kid.

“Harry how long have we known each other?”

“For years, Mr. Woodier.”

“Harry, do you trust me?”


“I need to ask you do something. Can you give some of the trust you have in me to your new teacher? Maybe she doesn’t hate you.”

Harry said nothing, he just looked at me. I wondered if he could accept that there might be more than one teacher in the world that didn’t dislike him.

The gentle challenge is often counterintuitive. Sometimes it means joining with the young person in their resistance. We accept that the behaviour allowed the child to survive and cope in an adverse situation, but once a child is safe, we want them to experience relationships in a different way.

“I know its important for you that I know you are a smart kid. You can keep shouting out the right answers until we work out some other way for you to be sure that I know you are smart.”

“I can see you want to be in control of this. I think you are right. I don’t think you know me well enough yet. When you get to know me better, perhaps you can trust me.”

Children who have been maltreated sometimes give up signalling their needs. Dozier says it is really important that the parent or caregiver find a way to indicate their availability even when the child acts as if he or she does not need it. In a recent email, Dozier stated, “For example, if a child banged his head and sat alone rubbing his head, the parent might say, ‘Oh honey, I’ll bet that hurts’ while she strokes him on the back.”

The gentle challenge is not a clever script; it is a way of building trust and a new way of relating. It often works better when the adult finds a way to do some of the heavy lifting.

“It isn’t easy to say sorry to someone you think is angry with you. What about if I do the talking and you just come along with me?”

“You told me when you are in your class, you need to use that kind of language because you feel threatened. But you are not in class today; you are on holiday, so why not give that kind of language a holiday?”

The gentle challenge often comes as the culmination of months or even years of building a relationship with a child or young person. It is based on an assumption that young people, despite being maltreated, have an underlying need for connectedness and coherence (1). I see it as a gift, a way of affirming a child as a human being. It asks children to re-imagine a world in which they can be loved and bring joy to others.

* The names of children used in this article have been changed.

1. Dozier M, Bates BC. Attachment state of mind and the treatment relationship. In Atkinson L, Goldberg S. (eds.) Attachment issues in psychopatholgy and intervention. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2004. P. 167-180.
2. Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. London: PIMLICO; 1997.

First published as ‘The Gentle Challenge’ 2017
© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.

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