Q: I am an infant-toddler teacher and first-time mother. I’m reading your book, “Touchpoints: Birth to Three,” and I want to learn more about the assessment you use to evaluate a 9-month-old’s belief in his or her own success or failure. — Via e-mail
A: Careful observation is the key. I like to watch a 9-month-old take on a challenge. There is so much to learn from seeing how a child tries something new. I have a simple test that teaches about temperament, and I think it can also be a window into a child’s self-esteem.
I give a 9-month-old a wooden block, small enough to fit in his hand but too big to swallow. If he expects to succeed, this sequence often follows:
He reaches out to grab the block. He looks at it. Then he looks at me as if to say, “What do you want me to do?”
At this age, babies already know that information is written all over our faces, and they know how to read it. If I smile encouragingly, he looks back at the block, turning it around in his fingers.
Meanwhile, I bang another block on the table. Ready to imitate, he bangs his block on the table, too. If I bang once, he bangs once. If I bang twice, he bangs twice.
If I tap his block with mine, he does the same thing — and then he looks up at me and smiles. Already, we are friends. Then he brings his block to his mouth and rubs it around — his way of getting to know it better.
A baby who expects to fail may not even reach for the block I offer to him. If he does, he’s likely to take it from me limply and then may let it drop. He may not bother to look back at me to see what I think. If he does, and if I smile my encouragement, he may not display the same curiosity or seem to care about pleasing me.
When I bang my block on the table, it gets his attention. But he watches passively instead of trying it for himself. Already he seems afraid of getting it wrong. Yet children can’t learn if they don’t dare make mistakes.
Next, I hold out a second wooden block. The 9-month-old who expects to succeed clutches the first one tightly, and extends his other hand for the new block. Then he studies it with the same curiosity he showed for the first one. While doing so, he may even forget about the first one and drop it.
But when I take my two blocks and slowly show him how I bang them together, he picks up his first block again and tries his hardest to imitate me. When he succeeds, he looks up at me as if to say, “I did it. I did it all by myself. Aren’t I great?”
The 9-month-old who expects to fail may not reach for the second block, having given up on himself with the first. I make it more enticing by turning it around in my fingers so he can look at it, or by banging it gently on the table. Then I put it down next to him — he’s likely to ignore it or just handle it briefly.
When I show him how to bang two blocks together, the response is a half-hearted try. He picks up a block with each hand, or I may need to hand them to him again. He may make a brief swipe to try to bring them together. But he misses and looks at me briefly, then at the ground. He won’t try again.
Hitting two blocks together is an item from the Denver Developmental Assessment. But when I’m watching to see if a child expects to succeed or fail, I’m not interested in whether he succeeds, but in how he approaches the task and how he responds to his own success or failure.
Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: