How toddlers decide when to try


The mind of a child is a sponge, soaking up information from all available sources and rapidly learning cognitive skills.

And researchers have now found they are economical with their energy, only trying hard and putting in effort when they know it will be beneficial. 

This element means toddlers’ learning mechanisms are more complicated than previously thought, as they do not just simply mimic adults or try at random.   

A study of 96 toddlers revealed that if they know success is impossible, they don’t waste much energy trying. 

But if they know a task can be accomplished, irrespective of how easy it is, they will persevere. 

Children also only ask for help if they actually need it.

If it is impossible then they don’t bother asking, but if they feel they should be able to succeed in something, but currently are not, they will then turn to their parents for a helping hand. 


An experiment tested how a group of toddlers tackled various problems and how much energy they invested. 

It found that if they had no reason to believe a task could be accomplished, and they failed at the first hurdle, they didn’t bother trying very hard afterwards.

However, if they were aware a task could be completed but it was difficult, they would persist for longer, even if they failed. 

‘Persistence is important and plays a role in learning and life outcomes like school performance and emotional well-being,’ said Dr Kelsey Lucca, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the paper. 

‘But, it’s not always a good idea to persist because effort is a limited resource, and deploying effort is metabolically costly, requiring time and energy. 

‘What truly drives learning is knowing when to try and what the best way to try is.’

The research conducted shows young children combine their own experiences with previous knowledge, a skill which changes what we known about toddler cognition.

It was previously assumed toddlers either try things at random or simply mimic what they see adults doing, but this research dispels these myths. 

Instead, children combine all information available to them to decide whether a task is worth persisting with. 

Researchers for the universities of Toronto, Washington and Arizona State recruited 96 infants for the study. 

They sat on their parent’s lap and watched a toy, placed inside a clear plastic box, on the table top just out of reach. 

Researchers then pulled on a piece of string attached to the plastic box in an attempt to tug it towards them.  

Toddlers saw one of three things happen. Either the experimenter succeeded in pulling the toy towards them on the first attempt, failed on the first four attempts and succeeded on the fifth, or failed on all five attempts to get the toy. 

It was then the turn of the toddler. 

However, in a cruel twist by the researchers, the box was bolted to the table, without the knowledge of the 18-month-old participants. 

But they tried to pull the toy towards them using the affixed piece of string, and their persistence was measured.

Infants that saw the experimenter succeed instantly or fail completely to move the box, progressively invested less effort to what they deemed to be a futile endeavour if they did not succeed themselves immediately.  

Only children who saw repeated failures before witnessing success kept up their attempts to move the box. 

Instead of putting in less and less effort, as with their peers, these toddlers spent about the same amount of time on each attempt.   

While perseverance was tracked, so was effort on each attempt. Infants who saw an adult fail to move the box did not pull very hard. 

Whereas those two saw success – either immediate or delayed – pulled harder in an attempt to get the toy.

The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box pulled the rope the hardest, and the infants who saw the experimenter struggle and succeed ramped up how hard they pulled on the rope with each attempt.

‘This finding suggests that the toddlers engaged in a sophisticated decision-making process, similar to how adults might create a list of pros and cons and use it to influence their choice,’ said Jessica Sommerville, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and senior author on the paper. 

‘The toddlers computed the utility, or usefulness, of trying to move the box by weighting the potential costs of what they had to lose – whether it was worth it keep pulling the rope – against what they had to gain in terms of the likelihood they could access the toy.’ 

After the three impossible trials, the research team again switched the box, this time for one that could move. 

On these trials, all three groups of infants successfully moved the box and accessed the toy inside. 

The research team examined whether the infants sought assistance by pointing or reaching towards the box. 

The infants only sought help when they actually needed it, the researchers found, on the attempts when the box was affixed to the table and impossible to move. 

No children sought assistance for the latter tasks where the box could move.   

‘The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box traded off trying for help seeking, suggesting that they realised the most adaptive strategy in that context was to get help from someone who can solve the problem,’ Dr Kelsey Lucca from ASU said. 

‘The infants who saw the experimenter struggle but succeed needed the least amount of support to solve the task – suggesting that demonstrations of hard work and effort have carry over effects that impact infants’ motivation in future tasks.’ 

Infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box requested help more than the other two groups, which indicates the infants only sought help when it was useful


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