by Jai Flicker
Early on in my work as an educator, I recognized that to help my students truly thrive I needed to support 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, but it also nourished my relationships with students. This, in turn, allowed me to better support them academically. As David Brooks recently pointed out in a NY Times opinion piece: "Students learn from people they love."
For the first several years of my career, I relied on a combination of intuition and common sense to guide my approach to working with students. This was fine, but as my staff at LifeWorks grew I found myself in the position of having to train others. When I went to try to explain what it was that I had been doing that has been working for me, communicating my approach turned out to be more difficult than expected.
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 for years it came a breath of
fresh air. These theories would help me put language to things that I had previously intuited but struggled to articulate. They helped explain why some of my favorite strategies worked, as well as why some of my 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.
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. This theory has expanded and grown since its inception over forty years ago. Today, hundreds of researchers in dozens of countries contribute 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.
Just as we all have physiological needs that must be met for us to survive, in order for us to grow and thrive psychologically, our basic psychological needs must be met. The problem is, most of us don't have a clear sense of what these crucial psychological needs are. Fortunately, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the founders of Self-Determination Theory, have identified three psychological needs that we all must meet in order to flourish: autonomy, relatedness and competence.
Autonomy refers to an individual being the source of their own choices. It relates to the expression of free will. Those who exhibit autonomy make choices as an expression of themselves, not because of outside pressure or control.
While autonomy is often thought of as synonymous with the concept of independence, the two concepts differ in important ways. To be independent means to go it alone. Working independently is not cooperative or collaborative. However, we can act autonomously while collaborating with other and while allowing others to contribute meaningfully to our lives. This is possible as long as we feel empowered to make our own decisions within our relationships, not controlled or coerced.
All too often, we end up stifling people's sense of autonomy when we get caught up trying to manage their behavior. One simple alternative to managing behavior is to focus on supporting others as they try to make tough choices for themselves. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Help them think through various options or scenarios. Share your own relevant life experiences so that they might learn from you. To support another’s autonomy we must allow them to make their own choices.
Our second fundamental need is that of relatedness. This, of course, refers to our need for connection and for a sense of belonging. Feeling cared for by others, as well as caring for them in return, provides us with a sense of security and well-being.
One of the best ways to help children develop a strong sense of relatedness is to provide them with unconditional love. Love that is freely given and is not based on performance or achievement leads to optimal development. This is because love based on performance can be lost if one's actions don't measure up. Offering conditional love can be an effective way to control behavior, but it does not create the secure context in which children thrive. Conditional love tends to lead to a range of undesirable outcomes, such as anxiety, resentment, amotivation, etc. I do not mean to imply that it is somehow harmful to praise kids for their achievements. We just need to make sure that the message that we love and care about them regardless of performance is well established first.
The third fundamental need is our need for competence, which occurs when people feel effective in their interactions with the world. We all need opportunities to exercise and express our skills and capacities. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, of course, but that is not necessary to maintain a healthy sense of competence. What we do need is to experience a reasonable level of competence within at least a few domains. A child who struggles in school but excels in sports, in drama, or as a musician, will fare better than a child who does not get the chance to shine in any domain.
One helpful insight into supporting competence comes from the fact that the earlier, far less familiar, term used to name this need was effectance. This word reveals that our need for competence is not only about getting really good at things. On a more fundamental level, it is about our capacity to have an effect our environments. It almost doesn’t matter what that effect is. Any time we make an effort to interact with, to organize, to upgrade, or to rearrange our immediate surroundings we are going to experience greater well-being. This is important, in particular, because many students see “fun” as their primary goal and “work” as something to be avoided as much as possible. This view is understandable, given that students are required to do schoolwork all day and homework in the evenings, usually in a non-autonomy supportive way. However, this outlook ends up robbing many teens of opportunities to increase their sense of well-being. To get around this, I encourage teens to consider “taking action”
rather than telling them to “do work.” This language of “taking action” has far fewer negative connotations associated with it than does “doing work.” And while some actions are going to be more practical and productive than others, when it comes to well-being, just about any action will do. The goal is not to get teens to do something in particular, but to help them experience for themselves how taking action, even in simple ways, leads to more vitality and well-being.
Finally, supporting the development of competence in others can involve providing some form of guidance or coaching. This can be a great opportunity for connection if we possess the knowledge or skill the teen is hoping to acquire. However, even if we don’t, we can still support their learning process by offering them encouragement. Learning any new skill inevitably involves challenges and, at times, frustration. When a child hits their wall and feels like giving up, empathizing with them and offering encouragement can help them push through.
Putting Theory into Practice
As we wrestle with how to best support teens, one sure bet is to focus on helping them meet their psychological needs. By placing autonomy, relatedness, and competence at the forefront of our efforts as parents and educators we can help teens reach their full potential.
At LifeWorks, we strive to do this every day. When students arrive, we make sure to connect with them as individuals, not solely as students to be tutored. Sometimes, this is simply involves offering a warm "Hello, how are you?" At other times, this involves a checking in about the student's day. Whatever form it takes, establishing a connection is an essential first step to providing meaningful support.
As students transition into work mode, we help them devise individualized plans for their sessions rather than simply telling them what to do. We do not leave them to their own devices (literally). Rather, we ask helpful, supportive questions such as: What do you need the most help with today? What would you like to accomplish during your session? Which of your assignments do you think will take the most time? By asking such questions we help facilitate the student's own decision making process, thereby nurturing and supporting their sense of autonomy.
Once a personal connection has been established and a plan is formulated in an autonomy-supportive way, students are really ready to learn. By taking the time to attend to a student's needs, we create an optimal learning environment, which makes teaching them new academic material much more effective. This, in turn, leads to increased student competency. When all three fundamental needs are getting met students truly thrive!