by Jai Flicker
From early on in my work as an educator, I recognized that to help my students truly thrive I needed to embrace them as individuals, not focus solely on helping them with academic content. It turned out that taking this humanistic approach not only came in handy when a student of mine would come in upset about something that had happened at school that day, but it also nourished my relationships with students in general, which in turn allowed me to better support them academically. For, as David Brooks recently pointed outin a NY Timesopinion piece, "students learn from people they love."
Initially, I relied on a combination intuition and common sense to guide my support of students. This worked well enough, but as LifeWorks grew I found myself responsible for training others. When I went to try to explain what I had been doing, I discovered that communicating my approach was more difficult than expected. The work turned out to be too complex for me to organize into a clear and concise framework.
Fortunately, it turns out there are brilliant researchers and theorists out there that have devoted their lives to mapping the territory of human development. When I finally discovered some frameworks that described in great detail the very phenomena that I had been witnessing myself for years it came a breath of fresh air. These theories would give me language for things that I had previously only sensed. They helped explain why some of my best strategies actually worked, as well as why some of my other less successful ones didn't. These theories mapped out the territory of the interior. Or, perhaps more accurately, they shone light on previously hard to see terrain. I had been navigating by feel mostly, but there was a lot I still could not see. Turning on the lights was a game changer.
One of the most illuminating theories I have come across is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Its name relates to the fact that one of the keys to motivation is allowing others to chart their own course, to allow them to be self-determined, as opposed to controlling them. Over the past forty years of research, this theory has expanded and grown. Today, hundreds of researchers in dozen of countries are contributing to the project of refining this framework, which at its core offers the following insight: When our psychological needs get met, we thrive. When our needs go unmet, we languish.