I recently gave a presentation at the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) conference on impact of mindset (our belief about our ability to improve) on learning. During the questioning at the end of the presentation, one teacher asked, “I work with High School students. Is it too late to help them learn to deal with frustration and keep working?” We can all certainly understand the question – at what point do we start to say, “Well, that’s just the way he is?”
My belief, and I am not alone, is that it is never too late to shift one’s perspective. As adults, I have known many people who have taken on amazing personal challenges they never before believed they could have accomplished. We need look no further than Dancing with the Stars or Greatest Loser to see examples of people who have challenged long held beliefs about their abilities to persevere and succeed.
As parents and educators, we are in the position of helping young people develop their optimism and belief about themselves. So the real question should not be, “Can I …” but rather, “How can I help someone develop a growth mindset – the believe that they can deal with frustration and setbacks and keep on learning.”
With all of the time we spend both in the classroom and at home teaching children reading, writing, math, etc., the focus of the lesson is often on the content. The measure of success is often the grade. At a young age, children start to associate their abilities with how successful they are in meeting certain standards of performance. And some students, for a variety of reasons, will sail along well in school learning and performing to expectations. But make no mistake about it: even those students who manage fine throughout much of their academic career may still reach a point when they are faced with a level of challenge they have not encountered before. Without the belief that they CAN tackle a challenge with proper tools, strategies and support, they are no different than the younger child who will fail to push though and persevere.
We need to shift the focus. A wise person once said to me, “It is not the challenges you face, it is the choices you make in facing those challenges that matters.” So, how can we help kids develop that strong, confident attitude that they CAN face a challenge head on and persevere? Let’s talk specifics:
- Set up an activity where you explicitly set forth that your intention is to see how we each deal with frustration. Including yourself in the activity when possible can be a great way to model and share with true empathy and experience. You might say, “Today we are going to test our limits, our determination, and our patience. Let’s see the messages our brains send us and how we can help ourselves succeed.” Note: This is not meant as just a one time activity. You will want to do this perhaps once a month to help them gradually learn
- Choose an activity that has at least a few problems that are “reachable” for success to start out. You can use some Toothpick puzzles or Rebus word puzzles for example. It is important to do a variety of activities over time so that kids will see how they deal with different types of challenges (linguistic, mechanical, artistic, etc.)
- As you begin the activity, you can explore what type of challenges they have faced that may be similar. Explore what aspect might be the most challenging. Discuss what strategies they (and you) can use if it gets really challenging so you can keep persevering. By discussing this in advance before the stress creeps in you have a better shot at optimistically coming up with strategies.
- During the activity, narrate what you see – the strategies being used, the effort being put forth. Gently suggest strategies if appropriate.
- After the activity, explore how it went. How did they stretch themselves? What strategies did they use? How can they use this knowledge about themselves in the future?
Keep in mind that this exercise should not be just a one-time event. In a classroom you may want to have a monthly Frustration Friday for example. At home you may ask each family member to choose a challenge for a monthly family game night.
In summary, keep in mind that learning comes in all forms. The more we pay attention to our thoughts and our beliefs, the more we can reinforce those that help us and challenge those that don’t serve us well.