Leaps, Not Steps
Very honored that the truly brilliant educator Wes Carroll has written, in his words, "a response" to my recent piece on the importance of our attitude toward work. His initial observation captures something that we often talk about amongst ourselves at LifeWorks, "that there's more to teaching than knowing the material and knowing how to teach."
You can check out Wes's excellent post here:
Our Attitude Toward Work
A freshman boy came in to see me not long ago. His grades had slipped and his parents couldn’t figure out why. He was clearly bright and had even received substantial tutoring elsewhere, but something wasn’t working.
So I asked him what he thought was going on. As it turned out, it wasn’t a mystery. Simply put, he was struggling to stay motivated in school and, as a result, was falling further and further behind.
Rather than chide this student for being lazy or give him a “pep talk” to try to motivate him, I instead worked with him to help transform his attitude toward school, and toward work in general. And after this one session, as extreme as this may sound, his work ethic in school turned around completely.
When he came in the following week he immediately got down to work, remained focused for the entire session, and left having completed all of his homework. It was as if I was witnessing a different student. And it wasn’t just that he was more productive. He carried himself differently. I saw in him a new sense of self-confidence and purpose.
In my more than 15 years of working with students, I had never witnessed such a dramatic turnaround. His transformation was, in fact, what inspired me to write this piece about the approach I used in that pivotal session.
* * *
Part of my approach to working with attitude comes from my exposure to mindfulness practice. One definition of mindfulness is the act of staying present, in a non-judgmental way, with whatever arises. During meditation, unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations often arise: boredom, physical aches and pains, sleepiness, agitation. In our day to day lives, when these inner experiences occur, most of us find ways to distract ourselves from them. We grab something to eat, watch TV or jump online. Part of the benefit of mindfulness practice is that it teaches us to make peace with our own inner lives.
There is a beautiful phrase in Buddhism that captures this idea. It is called “turning toward.” Instead of trying to ignore discomfort, we turn toward it, investigate it, get curious about its qualities even. And, remarkably, when we do, our awareness expands to make more room for whatever may be arising. It is not that the discomfort goes away, but rather that our relationship to it changes.
I wanted to bring this same lesson to my students. So I started using the following trick whenever students were dreading their homework: I would invite them to start working, just for a few minutes, and to observe how awful their work actually was. I would then ask them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.
The results were surprising. What I found was that no matter how much a student had been dreading doing work, their rating was never higher than a 2 or 3. Realizing this for themselves helped students see that the actual experience of work was not as bad as their imagined version of it.
I once employed this technique with a junior girl who came into my office looking absolutely deflated. She sat there, slumped in her chair. “I don’t want to do any work today,” she said. “I have no motivation whatsoever.”
So I challenged her to try my experiment, to see how awful her work really was. She barely had enough energy to do even this, but fortunately she was willing to try.
Sure enough, once she started working, she quickly found that the reality of her experience was nowhere near as bad as she had imagined. In fact, she got so involved in her work that she never even bothered to rate her experience and instead just kept on working for two hours straight. The session turned into her most productive ever.
And when her time was up, not only was she relieved to have gotten all that work done - work that had been hanging over her head for days - but she was extremely thankful too. She had been stuck and didn’t see a way out. She hadn’t been resisting her work intentionally, she just didn’t know how to get herself going.
* * *
While this approach served my students well, I realized I could take it one step further while watching a video by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, which combine traditional Buddhist insight with modern neuroscience. In the video, Hanson discusses two kinds of happiness, one called hedonia and the other eudaimonia.
This distinction is extremely useful in distinguishing between experiences that are merely enjoyable (hedonia) and those that are meaningful in a deeper sense (eudaimonia). Both aspects of happiness are valid, but they are achieved in different ways and satisfy different needs. All too often, teens try to maximize their hedonia while unknowingly minimizing activities that lead to eudaimonia.
* * *
Which brings me back to the freshman boy I mentioned at the start of this piece, the one who was falling further and further behind in school and didn’t know what to do about it.
What I explained to him was this: almost everyone has it backwards when it comes to work. I told him that most teens think, as I did when I was in high school, that work is something to be avoided, and the real goal in life is to have fun and hang out with friends. I pointed out that engaging fully in our work brings us another, often deeper, sense of happiness.
To my surprise, this resonated with him immediately. He even gave me an example of this at play in his own life. He happened to be a competitive boxer, which involved a ton of hard work. He explained that there were times that he only reluctantly went to practice, but that once he was there he felt great and was always glad he had gone. The key was recognizing that it was not in spite of the hard work that he enjoyed himself, but because of it.
I then pointed out that school was no different. That the act of working hard would be rewarding in a similar way -- if he could just allow himself to fully engage in it.
Instead of telling him to work harder, I helped him see for himself that hard work is inherently meaningful and rewarding. And sure enough, as I mentioned before, when he returned the following week he got right down to work and stayed focused for the entire session.
* * *
Helping others shift their attitude is not always easy. It requires nuance and skill. All too often, attitude is confused with how we feel about a situation, or reduced to putting a “positive spin” on something. But changing our attitude involves more than simply changing how we feel. Rather, it has to do with deepening our understanding of, and, ultimately, our relationship to a situation. And on the deepest level, it means choosing to see ourselves not as victims of circumstance, but as empowered individuals who can meaningfully shape our own lives.
In any difficult situation, we can choose to hold onto our frustrations and limitations or we can accept things as they are and marshal our energies toward finding a solution. When we do this, we do end up both feeling better and speaking more positively about whatever challenge we’re facing. But these changes are the results of a deeper shift in attitude. Helping others in this way empowers them to step into better versions of themselves. And that's what education is really about.
The Relational Nature of Learning
Just as the classroom is the physical context within which learning typically takes place, it turns out that the teacher-student relationship is the psychological context within which students learn. Just as a well-lit, ergonomically appropriate, technologically up to date classroom will increase learning, a strong, healthy teacher-student relationship will similarly boost and deepen learning. And unfortunately, just as a chaotic, run down physical space will interfere with a child's ability to learn, so too will a bereft teacher-student relationship negatively impact learning.
Carl Rogers, the godfather of humanistic psychology, was one of the first to articulate the importance of relationships in supporting personal growth. He wrote:
Rogers' breakthrough was to recognize that facilitating learning and personal growth is not about offering advice. It is about entering into a particular kind of relationship, which he called "helping relationships." This insight led to a revolution in how psychotherapy was conducted. Instead of sitting behind a couch with a clipboard trying to analyze one's patient, psychologists began relating to their clients, person to person.
This insight into the primacy of relationships, as impactful as it was within the therapeutic community, transcends the field of psychotherapy. In fact, Rogers recognized this himself:
Over half a century later, we have yet to fully absorb the significance of Rogers' insight. In my own work with youth the relational approach has proved time and time again to be incredibly effective, which has only served to heighten my awareness of the ineffectiveness that inevitably follows when educators fail to nurture the teacher-student relationship.
There seem to be two primary reasons people struggle to grasp the importance of relationships in an educational context. The first is that relationships are abstract. They are not objects that you can pick up, examine, dissect. Rather, relationships are the interplay between objects. When people try to figure out how to improve teaching they typically either focus on what the teacher is doing wrong or what the student is. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear parents or students complain about teachers while the teachers are simultaneously complaining about the students or parents.
This either/or mindset is common. Take, for example, the following article recently published in the Parenting section of the Washington Post, whose author Laura Hanby Hudgens asks in the title: Do teachers care more about schoolwork than your kids do? After listing off a number of legitimate problems occurring within education today, Hudgens states: “But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America’s classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed — at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students’ grades, learning and futures than they do.”
Hudgens is not necessarily wrong. When kids are apathetic, it negatively impacts learning. But this framing doesn't ask why the kids are apathetic. It simply locates that apathy within them. What if that apathy is a reaction to the context they are in?
To be fair, Hudgens is pushing back against a growing number of people who, rather than blaming children, blame teachers. She writes:
It is problematic to expect teachers to continually make learning more fun and exciting. Doing so inevitably leads to teacher burnout.
Because most of us fail to recognize the importance of the relational nature of learning, two camps tend to form, each pointing the finger at the other.
According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, who has built significantly upon Rogers' humanistic theories, a similar issue commonly arises in how we think about parenting difficulties. Neufeld writes, “Many experts assume … if parenting is not going well, it is because parents are not doing things rights.” What is needed, then, is the right method or technique. He continues:
Neufeld here is pointing to the same insight we say articulated by Rogers above. The relationship creates the context for the behavior of the child, not the methods employed by the parents or the character of the child. As Neufeld is quick to explain:
But Neufeld sums up his view as follows: “Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.”
The second reason we often overlook the relational perspective is that we already subscribe to a different, competing model of the world that is more mechanical. This model is states that the way to influence people’s behavior is through offering incentives and disincentives, punishments and rewards. This is the territory of Behaviorism, which intentionally does not try to figure out what is going on inside of people, since according to that view, this is ultimately futile. Instead, Behaviorism invites to to only look at observable behaviors and to figure out what contingencies lead to the desired outcomes.
There is an elegance to this, a simplicity. No more psychoanalyzing. No more messy interpretations. However, while this model may be good for influencing (aka controlling) people, the approach it leads to simply does not support healthy child development. While using punishments and rewards when raising children is at times practical, the Behaviorist approach leads to an objectification of the role of parent. We end up managing teen behavior rather than tending to the quality of our relationships with our children.
It tends to look like this: as the teen starts to push back against the strategy of punishments and rewards, the parent sees no other option but to double down on their behavior management strategy. Rather than improving the situation, this just fuels a growing power struggle between the parent and the teen, one that puts a strain on both parties and gets in the way of what the teen needs most, which is a deeper connection with the parent.
Part of the problem with the Behaviorist approach is that even when we are rewarding a child for good behavior, it is still fundamentally a relationship of control. Our main focus is on getting that person to do something. Even when we are clear that we are doing this for their own good, say offering a reward for good grades, it is still about modifying behavior, not about relating.
Which brings us back to Rogers. In his work, Rogers didn’t just state that relationships are important for personal growth. He also began to articulate what effective "helping relationships" look like, ultimately settling upon three core principles that lead to positive learning and growth in others:
All three of these insights are important, but let’s take the first one for a moment. This idea is sometimes summed up being authentic. To show up in a relationship authentically takes some amount of courage, even when (or perhaps especially when) this relationship is with a teenager. In fact, teens are more sensitive to realness than most adults and can smell a "phony" from a mile away (see Catcher in the Rye). So this first principle is particularly important when working with, or raising, teens.
* * *
One time, a student came in to see me who had been struggling in math. As a tutor, my job was, ostensibly, to help her understand the math and thereby get better grades. But when this student arrived at my office it was clear she was completely shut down to the learning process. Her posture was slumped, her homework crumpled in her bag, her affect flat. When I ask her what she had been struggling with she said, matter-of-factly, “Pretty much everything. I really hate math."
In situations like this, it is tempting to try to cheer the person up. We want them to feel better. We want them to look on the bright side. We hope that a more optimistic take on life will lead to action. The problem with this approach is that it is ultimately about trying to get the student to act, which is to say it is still focused on behavior. But in doing so, I would not be signaling to the student my concern for her, as a person, which is the relational thing to do. I would be signaling that my concern is ultimately with getting her to produce certain academic results.
In this case, what I actually did was set the math aside and started getting to know her. I started learning about her and what was important to her. We did not end up doing any math that first session. Nor during the second. Nor during the third! And then, just as I was starting to doubt the relational approach myself, the next time she came in - as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do - she pulled out her math and we got to work.
I am convinced that if I had tried to speed things along, if I had tried to get this student to start on the math before she was really ready, it would have backfired. For whatever reason, she simply was not open to it. By letting the process unfold as I did, I signaled to this student that my allegiance was to her, not to achieving a particular result, nor to my role as tutor. In most cases, it does not take three full sessions to prove where my commitment lies. In fact, it had never taken that long before, nor has it since. But the underlying principle is the same. Once this student realized that I was not going to coerce her, or even try to convince her, to do her work her perspective shifted. Allowing her to open up at her own pace helped build enough trust for her feel ready to finally ask for help.
Let’s return, for a moment, at the “apathy problem” mentioned above. Apathy in students is a real phenomenon, one I encounter often enough. But I view it differently than Hudgens. She sees it as a problem with the mentality of students. She writes, “Many students don’t see education as a privilege. They see it as a product. And if they don’t like the salesperson, if they aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they aren’t buying.” In other words, apathy is the result of entitled attitudes on the part of students.
Hudgens is not alone in her view. I have heard, myself, teachers complain about how “entitled” students are these days. But I work with many of the same students they do and, oddly, an majority of them have been respectful and kind, and have expressed gratitude for the help they've received. It is possible that I only the "good" kids are coming through my doors, but I think a different explanation is far more likely. Kids respond to their environments, as we all do.
When I see a student displaying apathy, I don’t see an entitled child who doesn’t care. I see a discouraged student who is afraid to care because it would be too vulnerable to do so. This difference in interpretation leads to a very different kind of intervention. Instead of trying to convince the student to care more, I work to help the student see a path to success. I work to empower that student. And then, when they experience a renewed sense of confidence, they can once again risk caring.
Hudgens states that “teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” But her recommendations for overcoming apathy are circular: “Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work.” These are the actions of an already motivated student, not what one should do to generate motivation. Generating motivation is not about forcing oneself to act like a motivated student, but to shift one's relationship to school.
The reality is, kids don’t mean to become apathetic so they likewise don’t know how to stop being apathetic, even when they want to. They need us in order to grow and change. In the same way kids need teachers to learn how to multiply and divide, they also need to be taught how to care about school. In the same way young children need us to learn how to walk and talk, older children need us to learn how to apply themselves.
Children of all ages pattern themselves after the people to whom they are most attached. This is why attending to the quality of our relationships matters so much. Whether at home or in the classroom, to help children reach their full potential we can't only focus on correcting their behavior, we have to be willing to enter into authentic, supportive relationships with them. It's not always easy, but in my experience it is both extremely rewarding and effective.
Homework vs. Personal Growth
To be successful, all students must learn to work on two levels: the homework level and the personal growth level. Teachers spend a lot of time presenting new information, but not a lot of time teaching students how to effectively apply themselves. At LifeWorks we teach both levels: we help students understand their homework, while at the same time helping them grow as individuals so they can fulfill their potential.
Change can be hard work, but at some point in high school most students hit a wall where their old habits and strategies no longer work. However, this seeming crisis is really an opportunity for personal growth. In some cases, this means learning how to think in new, more powerful ways. In other cases, it has more to do with shifting one's attitude toward school, and toward work itself. And in yet other cases, it's about learning simple yet effective mindfulness practices designed to reduce stress and stop anxiety from getting in the way of performance.
Ultimately, our goal is not just to help students get better grades and get into college, although that's a big part of what we do. We are also committed to something bigger. We are committed to helping students transform themselves so that once they get to college they will be ready to take full advantage of it.
Reframing and Reclaiming Anxiety
by Dr. Jeremy Jensen, Psy.D
With the end of the school year fast approaching, stress levels for many are on the rise. While most of us would give almost anything to avoid feeling anxious, it turns out anxiety is actually associated with several positive attributes. Of course, too much anxiety can be overwhelming but just the right amount can be beneficial. So, in addition to taking time for proper self-care, the next time you feel stressed you can reframe and reclaim anxiety in the following ways:
1. You are intelligent with a well-developed imagination: Researchers at King’s College in London have recently drawn a connection between anxiety, higher IQ scores, and creativity.
2. You are prepared, observant, and self-aware: The right amount of anxiety improves performance on a variety of physical and mental tasks.
3. You possess important social-emotional competencies: Anxiety encourages you to stay open to the social and emotional signals of others, helping you recognize certain strengths and weakness in them. In some situations, anxiety can even help you detect when people are lying.
4. You have the potential to be a good leader: According to a recent article in Forbes magazine anxious leaders actually make better decisions.
5. You are good friendship material: While most social anxiety sufferers have doubts about the quality of their friendships, their friends seen them in a much more positive light. Furthermore, getting a little flustered in social situations often serves to show others that you care and are trustworthy.
6. You are safety conscious: Researchers have discovered that anxiety in childhood reduces the occurrence of life threatening accidents in early adult life.
7. You are courageous: True courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness and ability to proceed in spite of and with the help of it.
So remember, while anxiety doesn't always feel good in the moment, we are learning more and more about the many, sometimes surprising, positive side benefits it brings with it. Understanding this won't eliminate anxiety, but it can help us take a different, more positive view of it, which can make a huge difference in how it impacts our lives.
Note: This piece is based on an article originally written by Renee Jain and published in the Huffington Post.