I love to see kids struggle. Let me rephrase that: I love to see a child persevere through a challenging task and enjoy a sense of accomplishment when he says, “I did it myself!” It has taken me thirteen years of teaching and sixteen years of parenting to learn the value of independent task completion and how to put aside my ego to let students fail and succeed.
As educators and parents we have a strong drive to support our children and students. We want to instruct them, to nurture them, to protect them from frustration, and to encourage their love of learning. Too often, we mistake the safe and comfortable completion of a task for success. As adults in an unpredictable and demanding world, we realize that success generally implies many attempts, failure and frustration, and lonely pursuit of a goal despite periodic boredom and drudgery. However, we are unwilling to allow our children to experience these for fear their self-concepts will be damaged or because they might give up prematurely. I believe we need to flip our thinking.
I have worked with many students who demonstrated significant progress toward goals when working with me or in class discussions, and then were unable to demonstrate the same skills when working independently or taking tests. These students lacked stamina. While providing necessary scaffolding and supports that allowed them to learn and practice skills, I had overlooked their need to work through problems independently. It can be very difficult for teachers and parents to allow children independence. We feel as if we are doing nothing when we idly sit by and let children work. In fact, we are not idle when we quietly step aside and allow a child to read independently or work through a math problem more than once, or persevere through the frustration of generating a topic for a composition.
Self-concept that has developed because a child worked through a challenge and found a way to accomplish a demanding task is certainly more deeply rooted and productive than the type of self-esteem derived from an endless parade of nearly perfect artifacts produced through hover-style modeling and coaching. Certainly, modeling and coaching are invaluable in developing skills and providing instruction and guided practice. However, especially when working individually with a child, I find it very difficult to allow him to make a mistake and continue until he realizes his error. I want to alert him! I want to show him how to fix it. I want to see him employ the strategies I’ve taught him. But it’s not about me. It’s about his learning, his independence. It’s about his ability not only to do this assignment right now, but also his willingness and ability to tackle other similar and dissimilar challenges in various settings in the future, with or without help.
As for the possibility that he might give up if he gets frustrated, this is when “productive monitoring” is appropriate. My job is to encourage, to provide a brain break, to demand perseverance. Different kids and different tasks call for various types of encouragement. There is an art to encouraging a child to begin, persevere through, and complete a task without doing it for him. I was advised by a teaching mentor many years ago, “Never do anything for your students that they can do themselves.” Simple advice has seldom been so profound and insightful as this elementary statement. To this day, I cringe when I see a colleague snatch up a pencil to erase for a child so that she can write 14 instead of 41, or fix a spelling error—and I stop myself from doing the same. What better way for students to learn to persevere, than through practice of persevering and the enjoyment of its inherent rewards! Experiences of frustration and failure are universal; however, our responses to them are individual. How much more suited for success is a student who is familiar with the wisdom that failure is only permanent if she doesn’t make another attempt at success?
Here are some suggestions for savoring the struggle:
· Be consistent. Teach by example that if you commit to something, you follow through to the best of your ability. If I tell my son I’ll pitch a baseball to him every day, and I pitch to him every day, even though we both laugh at my lousy pitches, then he’s learning a lesson. I do what I said I’d do, despite the fact that it’s not an area of strength for me. While fulfilling my commitment, it’s very likely that my pitch will improve over time, and if it doesn’t, then I can honestly assess my skills and name pitching as a personal weakness without valuing myself less.
· Follow through. If you tell your child that you’ll go to a movie when he finishes his big history presentation, then do whatever you can to make that happen, despite interruptions and inconvenience. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children see us follow through, despite challenges, their own determination will be bolstered? And when that follow-through on our part is tied directly to an accomplishment on their part, are they subconsciously learning that accomplishment of a goal results in positive consequences?
· Practice “productive monitoring.” Once a skill has been taught, or a direction given, allow your child to work through it independently. In education, we call it gradual release of responsibility. Provide instruction, provide guidance during practice, and then provide an opportunity for independent application of a skill. This can even be practiced with chores or with sports. Make it okay to do something imperfectly, as long as it is done with effort.
· Provide specific feedback. After allowing a child to work through an assignment, a chore, or an athletic endeavor, provide specific and constructive feedback. Illustrate what is needed to improve the performance; praise the parts that were right or the effort demonstrated. Provide feedback about the performance, not about the person. We can fail at tasks without being failures. Even better, teach your child to self-evaluate and make a plan for improvement.
· Encourage self-talk. Some of the best problem-solving and focus that I see from my students are the result of effective self-talk. When a student learns how to do long division, if he can recite the steps to himself as he works through a problem independently, his chance of success increases astronomically. If a child has heard your encouragement repeatedly, she can encourage herself when she is working alone. Encourage your child to talk through her thinking and ask herself questions that lead to exploration and solutions.
· Model the graceful navigation of failure. Enough said.
While it may appear to others that you are doing nothing while practicing “productive monitoring”, remember, the nothing you are doing is providing the space for your child to develop, learn and grow.