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The Perfect Time to Make This Mistake

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

As a Class VI Humanities teacher, I would say it to students and parents all the time: This is the perfect time to make this mistake. Whether it was finding the flaws in an organizational system, discovering a setback on grammar, or making a social misstep, the mistakes of Middle School were real opportunities for growth. I would regularly applaud my students for their mistakes, thank them for sharing them, and then ask the most important question: So, what will you do differently next time?

By the time students are in Upper School, their attitude towards mistakes feels fixed: mistakes are failures, and failure is unacceptable. They know that everything “counts” on their transcript and they see their academic success as an indicator of their worth and potential, as future adults. They know that college applications are more competitive than ever, and they know their parents are anxiously white-knuckling it through these critical years, clinging to the wish that their children will grow up to be successful.

But what does success look like? What does it mean, to thrive? At the heart of it, what we want for our students is for them to be happy, but by “happy,” we don’t necessarily mean that we want them to be comfortable, all the time. As Jessica Lahey, the author of The Gift of Failure describes it, we want students to experience a “desirable degree of difficulty” that will push them to problem-solve, innovate, and grow. We wish the kind of happiness for students that is driven by curiosity, desire, responsibility, and stability. We want them to fall in love with learning, and to be a good friend and sibling, and to find personal and/or spiritual fulfillment, and to find modes of expression through arts or sports or music that allow them to become even more themselves, every day.

What wonderful things we wish, for these children! But sometimes, to a student, it can feel like the adults in their lives are pulling them in all kinds of different directions — the things we wish for them can end up feeling like sources of stress, instead of the foundations of lifelong happiness.

When a student slides from the sweet zone of grappling with desirable difficulty into a space of unhealthy anxiety or defeat, the shift is often driven by one of the following factors:

  • Perfectionism: a desire to avoid failure, at all costs.
  • Dependence: a reliance on explicit direction at each stage of learning.
  • Exhaustion: even all the wonderful things can make you very tired.
  • Overwhelm: a difficulty thinking flexibly to triage seemingly impossible demands.

If a student fears failure, they will not take risks. If a student feels overwhelmed, they will bog down in details and lose the sense of big picture priorities. Exhaustion can compromise a student’s health — it exacerbates stress, inhibits focus, and dampens mood. And if an overwhelmed student seeks relief from stress with the immediate gratification of texting a friend, checking social media, or vegging out in front of Netflix, they are only further training their brains to look to multitasking as an unfulfilling answer to the real problem: that they need to slow down, get perspective, and take one thing at a time.

The antidote to these conditions is often coated in language: it’s in the way we talk to our students and children about their learning environment and experiences. If we focus on product over process, if we confirm fixed-mindset ideas about intelligence and capabilities, or if we habitually enable students to make them dependent on us, we are feeding into these habits of mind that end up inhibiting a student’s ability to truly thrive, and to find joy as well as success.

So, the next time you see signs of perfectionism, dependence, exhaustion or overwhelm, try one of these ways of coaching your child through the experience, and back towards a sense of success that will allow them to thrive (not just survive) within their education.

  1. Listen and empathize: sometimes, a student just needs to vent a little, be heard, and feel appreciated for all the juggling and coping and hard work they are doing. Through this venting process, remember that what your student might be saying is that school is hard… but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also offer satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, and progress.
  2. Talk about experiences and perceptions: instead of jumping into the “shoulds” of what your student or their friends or their teachers should do, take a step back. Ask questions to clarify your understanding of the situation, such as “What makes you think that?” or “What did that look like, when it happened?”
  3. Play the “what if” game, to consider the options: What might happen if you didn’t do as well on that test as you hoped? What might happen if you emailed your teacher to ask for an extension? What might happen if you went to bed at 10pm tonight, no matter where you were in your homework? Help your child to see their options and choices, and to think through the consequences.
  4. Offer to help problem-solve or strategize: if the “what-if” questions result in projections of apocalypse no matter how hard you try to give your child perspective and priorities, then what you’re hearing is that your child feels trapped. Acknowledge this sense of pressure, and remind them that there might be various different ways to accomplish their goals.
  5. Facilitate communication, and go to the source: most classroom issues are best resolved between student and teacher. If your student’s experience goes beyond a single classroom issue, a class or school dean is a great person to reach out to for advice or guidance.