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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Voices: The Teacher / Helping Kids Believe in Themselves

    Social-emotional learning
      By the time Cathy reached 4th grade, she had become discouraged. She felt like the dumb kid in class. Everything she did in school reminded her that she was a failure.But with the new school year came a new teacher. One day during some difficult seat-work, Cathy began to sob; she told the teacher how frustrating school was. The teacher took her aside and said something that she would remember vividly for the rest of her life: "Someone who struggles so hard with school will make a great teacher. You would make a great teacher." Cathy was shocked.Outside, the change didn't seem so dramatic, but inside her world had changed. Schoolwork was now a rocky pathway on her way to becoming a teacher—a teacher who helped students like herself. Sixteen years later she graduated with a teacher's degree and glowing recommendations.
      How we view ourselves and how we view the world around us are two of the most important factors in our development. Students who see themselves as persecuted will probably experience the classroom as oppressive. Students who view themselves as competitors will probably experience the world as challenging. A personal view of conqueror yields a world view of spoils.
      It is equally true that how we experience the world can affect how we experience ourselves. Although one factor might be said to generate the other, Piaget believed, as do I, that they co-evolve. As the story goes, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that a view of the self and a world view tend to affirm each other in an endless cycle. The good news is that a change in one view will often initiate a complementary change in the other. Cathy initially experienced herself as dumb, viewing success in school as hopelessly elusive. After the teacher's intervention, she saw herself romantically as a struggling teacher, viewing school success as an achievable goal.
      Most classrooms have several students who view school as oppressive, useless, or too difficult. They typically respond with little effort. Why try if you're just going to fail? In the past, we called these children lazy; now we call them discouraged underachievers. Examples of high achievers are equally clear. Students who see themselves as academic successes will view classrooms as opportunities to excel and will usually work diligently to become successful.
      Most of our training teaches us how to maximize the learning situation by manipulating the instructional environment: creative lessons, state-of-the-art teaching strategies, compelling supplementary materials, and vigorous management techniques. We learn a great deal about creating the optimal learning environment, but in spite of our best efforts, we often feel ineffective. We look at a great many of our students and say things like "I know she can do it if she would only try" or "He has so much ability, but I just can't seem to get through."
      Intuitively we know that something is lacking in our teacher training, and intuitively we also know that it is something that can't be taught. We can only hope that those attracted to the teaching profession already have "it."
      We have difficulty describing what "it" is, but we know the teachers who have it when we see them. We hope that our own children are lucky enough to be in their classes. To a large degree, young students' identities are still being developed; how they see themselves has not quite crystallized. Children will usually see themselves as reflections of powerful adults in their lives, and who is more powerful to a child than a primary teacher?
      • Failure is really just feedback. The best teachers remember that inherent in every failure is a lesson on improvement or change. High achievers have confidence in their ability to learn. All learners experience frustration, and the great ones probably more so. Failures do not incapacitate achievers because they hold the belief that failure is a step in the process of learning.
      • Teachers wield tremendous influence. A careless comment ascribed to a child's character may create a life-long result. If such a comment is made during a moment of weakness, the teacher addresses it immediately, disqualifies it, and recasts it as a neutral or positive comment. For example, I'd like to talk with you for a moment, Wade. Earlier today I said, "You never pay attention when I'm talking to you. All you ever do is goof around." [Addressed as soon as possible.] I'm sorry for saying that. Clearly I was wrong. [Disqualify statement.] Obviously you pay attention to things that interest you. I see you are paying close attention to me now—Thank you. [Recast] I snapped at you because I was frustrated.
      • The child is not the problem. Recurring patterns of problematic behaviors usually indicate that children have an unfavorable interpretation of themselves or the world in general. What the teacher interprets as problem behavior, the child often applies as a solution. Jordan is easily angered, produces violent outbursts, and frightens other children. The teacher and the other students see Jordan's anger as the problem—Jordan regards his anger as the solution. His parents were abusive, and he was frequently picked on by classmates when he was younger. Jordan's anger acts as a barrier to keep others from hurting him again. Attempts to correct his anger will result in resistance because Jordan uses his anger as an ally.Effective change must focus on the child's understanding of his or her world, not the adult's.
      • Children have all the resources they need to solve their own problems. Changes in behavior, self-esteem, motivation, or the development of a skill result from changes in how children view themselves and the world they live in. What one child sees as a stumbling block, another sees as an opportunity. What one child sees as insurmountable odds, another sees as the ultimate challenge. Children have immense potential. Our job is to note their resources and enlist them to help in restructuring a constructive model of the world.
      • Understanding the essence of a behavior is useful. Even violent behavior can be enlisted as a positive resource (for example, taking control, willing to respond authoritatively, quick action, refusing to be victimized). Ask yourself in what context would the essence of a particular behavior have value? For example, "Your refusal to be victimized will help you be more tolerant of people as you grow older." This comment has a good chance of reducing future outbursts because it validates the child's experience and orients him or her toward a more fulfilling future. To the shy or withdrawn child: "Your ability to examine situations carefully prepares you to work with others."
      • We must build from strengths, not from weaknesses. Focusing on weaknesses fosters anxiety and promotes feelings of helplessness. Discouraged children find it all too easy to not do something; they become masters at avoidance or compulsive perfectionists. Emphasizing strengths keeps children solution-focused, not problem-centered.
      • Children often excel in the most extraordinary ways. Nurture successes, however small, and always be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, and Leo Tolstoy were all considered poor to average students by their teachers. Our culture promotes a rather narrow perception of intelligence. Once we abandon our restrictive ways, we soon discover that children know a great deal more than we typically give them credit for. Remember that change truly happens in an instant. It is the preparation for change—indecision, reluctance to risk, and self-doubt—that takes so long.
      Those who operate from these fundamental assumptions can't help but encourage the children in their care. Think of those who had the most positive influence on your life. Fundamental beliefs like these create high expectations of the self-perpetuating variety. These are the best kind.

      Michael A. Rousell has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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