Teaching Kids Perseverance Requires…Perseverance!

Some kids (like some adults) seem to be born with the determination to conquer every challenge.  Other kids are choosier about where they channel their energy.  It’s not that they do not have “grit” or determination, but they may not currently have the internal drive to compete and attack in the same way their more ambitious-seeming peers do.  But kids, like adults, can learn to increase their stamina or perseverance on difficult tasks.  (They just cannot do so while you’re looking over their shoulder tonight.)  Learning to persevere itself requires perseverance.  So, what do you do when your young teen seems to be, simply put, a “quitter?”:

  1. First, revise your own thinking.  Pop culture is filled with black and white, dichotomous thinking about success and failure.  People love to self-identify as “Type A’s,” and to identify specific traits necessary to “success.”  But the truth is far more complex, and dichotomous thinking is usually a prelude to fear-based reactivity–Like when you take away your kid’s computer, phone and access to the car because he failed his Chem midterm.  You just want him to do his work, so he can get into college and get a good job.  But harsh consequences can backfire when your child really struggles with stamina issues.  So, what to do?
  2. Know it will take time.  As with building physical stamina, building mental stamina takes practice.  Do not expect him to finally listen to you and lift his head off the table, and become a self-starter in one night.  Try to stop expressing disapproval and try to get a sense of what’s actually going on.
  3. Most kids have assignments posted on line these days.  Great!  No forgetting to write stuff down.  But it can be a lot to wade through.  Sit with him as he goes through each class assignment on the school website or Google Classroom.  Use pen and paper to create the evening’s plan, so he does not need to keep returning to the webpage.  If possible print out hand outs/readings so he can mark text.
  4. Let him choose where he wants to begin.  Let him alone when he’s working well.  Tell him to call you for help.  Try to limit “help” to brief interventions, when he seems stuck on how to approach a task.  Don’t sit there next to him.  Be busy.
  5. Validate when a task is complex.  If you can’t help, do use the internet.  Do not berate your child for missing notes or not knowing a skill.  Model perseverance by demonstrating what you would do if you realized you did not know something you needed to know for a work task.  Problem solve and avoid blame.
  6. Model how to attack complex, multi-step problems.  Kids often think that other people are “magically” smarter or better at certain kinds of tasks.  Surely, everyone has their strength areas and areas of interest.  However, no one is magically arriving at the correct answer to a difficult multiple choice question or math problem.  Kids with perseverance usually a) like the task at hand b) assume they will need to work for the answer c) know correct answers are not magically arrived at d) understand how to process information step by step (rather than skipping ahead on “instinct”).  There are many opportunities for adults to unpack the thinking involved in solving complicated questions.  Enumerate steps clearly, and try to use a visual component in your explanation.  Show your child how to mark up a multiple choice question by crossing out clear wrong answers and weighing the validity of the best choices.  Demonstrate how each word in a math question or multiple choice question matters.
  7. Observe without judgment.  Your kid may learn certain complex tasks with ease–like driving a car or assembling some gadget.  This doesn’t prove he’s lazy when he’s challenged by other types of complex tasks.  Liking something alters how we think and allows us to solve problems and persevere.  If your kid shows perseverance on certain kinds of non-academic tasks, great!  Full stop.  Enjoy that he finds pleasure in tasks of his own choosing.
  8. Take action and give it time. If helping your child get organized every night is too frustrating, a tutor with classroom experience, or excellent training can help.  However, he’s going to have to move toward independence eventually. This can take a while!  Kids mature enormously month to month and year to year.  If your child has an abysmal freshman year in high school, he needs help, and he needs time.  Message positively–he has time to turn things around and not everyone matures at the same pace.  It is important to establish a routine around work at home that is both habitual and flexible.  Some assignments may still occasionally go unfinished.  Some quiz grades may not meet your standards.  Expect incremental, unsteady progress.  (Often an amazing tutoring session one week is followed by a less productive session the following week–each day brings its unique challenges.)
  9. Celebrate.  I don’t mean always give him cookies when he does a good job, but a treat doesn’t hurt.  But even more powerful is praise.  When we’re stressed we forget to acknowledge what’s already been accomplished.  There’s always so much more to do!  But when I tell a teen that I was thinking about how well they persevered last week on my drive over, the smiles are enormous.  Kids love to hear that you’ve been thinking about them positively, that you enjoy being around them and that you can see their effort, even when success remains out of reach.
  10. Re-frame the notion of quitting/giving up/lacking stamina.  Perseverance is above all an attitude.  People rarely actually “quit” important tasks.  We back off.  This is healthy and often self-protective.  We’re over-stimulated, and we can’t think straight.  The problem is “backing-off” can mean missing out, missing deadlines, and losing rather than gaining competencies.  If we label our behavior “backing-off” rather than “giving-up” we give ourselves the space and time to get back in the arena.  This is what kids need when they get stuck on difficult tasks.  They may need to back-off and get help.  Or they may need to rest, and return to the task later.  Give your child a set of choices when he gets stuck: back-off (and really do not re-approach the task until he gets help from a tutor/teacher), rest and return, or persevere.  Labeling the choices makes “quitting” not a real option without saying so.  In other words, you’re modeling the kind of self-awareness that is necessary for the development of true perseverance.

Listen While They Whine, or at Least Pretend To

As most educators know, the most important thing to demonstrate to your students is that you are listening to them. Once they know you are—that you are listening very closely indeed, two things happen: kids feel understood and they feel/become accountable. Being heard means being seen. It’s vital to learning and it’s vital to classroom dynamics. If you lecture too much, zone out when the kids talk, don’t seem wowed by their greatness and concerned when they miss the mark, you don’t have a class that’s working fully. You have a class that’s disengaged. No matter how great a talker you are, and no matter how great your curriculum is, you must learn to stop doing all the fantastic lecturing, and find out what your students are getting from you. (You can see this in the Parkland kids. They aren’t all precociously articulate, but they all expect to be listened to, which makes them compelling speakers.)

Listening is fifty percent of communication.  We’ve heard this a zillion times.  It’s a favorite canard of all professional coaches.  Still, when we teach/supervise our kids’ homework, we often fail to utilize our listening skills. We’re tired. We aim for forever: we want to put an end once-and-for-all to this stupid, waste-of-time homework fight. We pile on the shoulds and the should haves. “You should have started this much sooner. Why did you spend all that time (an actual weird amount of time) in the shower?  Don’t you remember learning about comma splices back in fifth grade?” We’re right. But we can be right as rain and still absolutely ineffective.

I’ve come to believe, as both a parent and educator, that there is no way out of the whining/crying trap but listening to it for at least five minutes. If you try to cut your kid off too soon in the venting frustration and proclaiming inadequacy routine, the issue will escalate, and you’ve given him one more reason not to get started on his paper: he’s pissed at you, and rightfully so. He’s sucked you into the homework fight, and you share his disdain for your own speechifying. If two parents get involved, there’s probably even more noise, and more rightness. And less work getting done.

It’s kind of like when you sleep-trained him: let him cry it out. It’s awful to listen to. You really want to give in to either over-comforting or venting your own frustration. But listening can calm him. Then, his talk may become something full—more trusting and meaningful than the initial complaint. He may be able to articulate his real issues with tackling his homework, and you may actually be able to do something more helpful than lecture. You may find out what his work and his challenges really are.


The Disorganized Child, Now That it’s June…

Ask any teacher—the most challenging month of the year for the chronically disorganized child is June. They’ve had the same notebooks, folders and back packs for a full ten months. They have failed to shed unnecessary materials, making important notes and exam review sheets that much more difficult to keep track of. They are tired. They are stressed, and so are the adults they rely on for help. Teachers and guidance counselors are winding things up and making room in their schedules for end-of-the year meetings. It is a hectic time for all. So how can parents support kids-in-need during the final weeks of the school year? Here are ten (simple) ways to help support your stressed-out teen this exam season:

Be Realistic: If your child has been earning Bs and Cs all year, do not get in the mindset that final exams present an opportunity to “fix” the problem. As parents, it seems like a Just Do It moment—Just get down to studying and ace the Spanish final—how hard can it be? We all pulled all nighters in college and learned a semester’s worth of work in a single ten hour study binge! Beware the “J” word—when we say just get your notes together, just learn all the irregular verbs in one night, we are minimizing a serious challenge. Eliminate the “J” word and ask yourself is this really do-able? High school freshman are not like college freshman. You may have pulled all nighters and aced your exams, but your kid is in a different place. Have high expectations, but do not expect a complete turnaround.
Get a head start: I do not recommend that parents intervene in the nitty gritty of finding a years’ worth of physics notes in a teenager’s binder. Instead, ask if the teachers have given out study guides. If so, sit down with your teen and model how to use the guide—have them check off which topics they have materials for and mark those that they need help replacing. Be prepared for the fact that your disorganized child needs time to pull her notes together—help her not leave this until the final crunch time. If teachers are approached with a week or more before the exam, they are likely to help students replace lost notes. If it is a day or two before the test, the response will not be so generous!
Hold steady—a high stress time of year is not a time to take away electronics or impose new limits. Yes, prioritize studying, but do not put a kid on lock-down for all of June, or impose new, stringent limits on electronics. He will view this as punitive and unfair.
Try to be around—Even if your teen does not often go to you for help, they are probably more productive when you are around. Try not to travel for business or go out with friends when your kid is buckling down for the toughest weeks of the year.
Stay in the moment—Try not to get ahead of your teen in terms of thinking about future challenges—don’t go shopping for summer reading yet, or start talking too much about interventions for next year—you can put the wheels in motion in interviewing tutors without your child’s input at this point. He needs his head in the game.
Say yes—If he wants a night out to go to a concert, and he is doing the best he can on getting ready for finals, give him that well-earned break, without the twenty-minute lecture on what he needs to get done the following day. A great night out listening to music with friends can re-charge an overwhelmed kid, and it is, after all, “festival season.” All kids want to belong, and concerts are often considered one of the year’s social high points.
Re-stock—Make sure the printer has ink, there’s plenty of looseleaf, colored sharpies and new folders around for organizing studying materials. New materials are always a boost!
Get professional help— If your child does not work with a tutor, look on line for study skills tips and templates. I personally love colored Sharpies for memorization tasks. Topics in one color, notes in a second color—The act of switching colored pens ensures the student is thinking about and processing the task. Colors stand out and are easy to visualize! T-charts and outlines are also easily available as are daily planners. Show kids websites and let them choose templates they think look helpful.
Encourage your teen to create lists of questions as they cull through their notes. Disorganized students tend to conceal (from themselves) what they do not know. Explain that you understand they have struggled this school year. The point of exams is to solidify learning. Knowing what you know and what you don’t is not shameful—it is part of the practice. Good students admit their knowledge gaps and fill them. The first step in studying is acknowledging what you do not know. Do not add to panic by expressing dismay about your child’s lack of understanding of a topic. Every fact gained and every concept grasped is a step forward. Questions are the key to filling in knowledge gaps.
Stay positive—Many of us have memories of awful exam periods. It is easy to commiserate and to engage in negative talk about “the system” and how irrational all this testing is. It may be true that your child does not shine on exams. However, research does show that studying for tests is productive for learning and storing information. Be positive about putting in the effort to study hard and avoid fatalistic views on people being good or bad test takers by nature. Good testers are people who focus hard, admit what they do not know and remain positive. No one learns on auto-pilot. Dispel the genius myth, and reinforce the fact that, although some skills come more easily for some people, everyone needs to learn how to learn and everyone needs to put effort in to succeed.

Exam times are highly stressful for everyone, but especially for the disorganized child. Problem solving is not easy when everyone is under pressure. If you are too busy or frazzled to help a flailing teen, a college student or specialized tutor may have availability, even in June. If you do hire a college student or new tutor on an emergency basis, be sure to brief the person on your child’s needs, state of mind, and academic performance throughout the school year.

Which Ten Executive Function Interventions Should Parents Try at Home? Claire Needell Hollander

Executive function is beyond the buzzword stage—It’s become the way of describing children who appear to be underperforming in school, but who do not have a discrete, diagnosed learning disability. There are private companies who train executive function coaches in week-long workshops, even if coaches have no classroom teaching experience, or training in a related field. There are multiple games developed by scientists and being marketed to improve focus and stamina in children with diagnoses of ADHD and Executive Function deficits. It all sounds very technical, professional and, well, like we can fix Executive Function deficits with specific trademarked, commercialized products.
Well, not so much. As my colleagues and I remind ourselves daily, there’s a reason they’re called kids…and all kids are cognitively different both from each other and from adults. Executive function is a grab-bag descriptor of the various functions “executed” in the pre-frontal cortex. These include: impulse inhibition, task initiation, working memory, cognitive flexibility, focus and organizational skills. Executive function deficits are sometimes heritable, are always a matter of maturity, and are also affected by fatigue, stress, emotional state and hunger. Reliable strategies for improving Executive Function skills are in huge demand and the marketplace is getting crowded. But sadly there is little evidence that the current gains in understanding brain function have direct implications for “educational delivery.” (Educational Neuroscience, Wiley Blackwell)
So, what’s a teacher, tutor, coach or parent to do? While I can’t claim to “fix” a child’s Executive Function issues, I can say that experienced, well-trained, reflective practitioners, who keep up on the research, can help children improve their school performance. Parents can too. Here are some methods which have positive results in classroom engagement and task completion:

Validate: We know what it’s like to be given a seemingly impossible task. When your child cries when he does his homework, when he becomes hopeless and helpless, the feeling is contagious. We feel hopeless and helpless as well—and that feeling can turn to anger. Break this cycle by validating his frustration. Say, yes, you realize math is difficult and his teacher might be a weirdo. He still needs to try his best, but first he needs to take a breather, dry his eyes, and have a glass of water (and maybe a cookie).
Differentiate: Help your child learn to distinguish between types of tasks: memorization tasks can take a lot of energy and should be prioritized. Multi-step projects need to be planned out, even when teachers do not provide a planning template. Planning templates can be found on-line or through a tutor or coach.
Create a fail-safe environment. Yes, your child should be able to keep track of her chargers, pens, pencils and folder. Yes, she knows where her eyeliner is at all times. Still, the problem is real. She has nothing to write with and this wastes precious time and energy—have charger, paper, a working printer, mechanical pencils, and extra folders around the house.
Praise—Go positive. “Wow, great, you did your art project during your free period,” will go down a lot better than “You are spending way too much time on nonacademic stuff.” Doing pleasurable activities actually primes the brain well for moving onto more aversive or challenging work.
Model good coping mechanisms. Notice if you vent when frustrated or give up easily on unpleasant tasks in front of your child. We all do this sometimes, but venting frustration as a habit can cost a student (or adult) a lot of much-needed energy. Next time you break a wineglass, do the silent screaming thing, then calmly find the broom and dustpan and show her what perseverance looks like.
Redirect a distracted kid, but do so kindly. When we treat a distracted student harshly, we’ve added to his cognitive load. He now feels annoyed/humiliated in addition to his frustration or fatigue. Say, “Hmmm, are those Pokemon cards part of a school assignment?” not “I am going to flush these damn things down the toilet next time I see them.”
Ask/don’t tell- when a child is frustrated, lost, unfocused, ask what’s up rather than lecture them on what they are not doing. They know already! But they may have some important information on how they are thinking. Sometimes, kids day-dream while they are reading, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a character or to live in a certain time period. This is age-appropriate, even for teens. Such dreaminess is not time-effective, but it can feed creativity.
Help with task-comprehension, but not with task-fulfillment. Often kids over-react when they see a new word in an essay question or if a page of homework looks unfamiliar in format. Model how to engage with a novel task/concept. Read the task aloud and ask which parts are difficult to understand, but then let your child muddle along in completing the assignment. It can be frustrating, even saddening, to watch a child struggle, but learning to struggle is essential. School assignments today are often more complex than assignments we may have gotten as students. Open-ended, thought-provoking, complex questions prepare middle schoolers for high school and high schoolers for college. These assignments are supposed to be challenging.
Use timers and short breaks to help your child focus. Many kids rush through assignments while others drag out work, so that a task that should take half an hour takes an hour instead. When they see how time-effective focused attention can be, kids are often delighted! Don’t take this from them by keeping them busy with chores or music practice. Let them taste the freedom! For the rushers—the timer demonstrates how much time they should actually be investing in their work. They may recognize that when they read for thirty minutes straight, not ten, they can keep up with the pace set by the teacher.
Listen to failure—Be a listener when your child fails, not a lecturer (or at least wait to lecture). Ask how he feels about his low performance on his math test and ask how he would like to problem-solve. When your child believes he has been given agency, he will focus better and be more self-motivated. He may not suddenly become an A student, but self-control must be experienced to be improved upon!

Kid-Made Solutions

kid made 1

I love this example of a kid-made study solution!

A high school sophomore copes with learning Chinese vocab by creating a weekly study guide she inserts into her pencil case.  Every time she needs a writing implement, she’s glancing at the week’s vocabulary and English translations.

The take-away: In a complex educational environment in which students are learning in a variety of modalities throughout the day, creative problem-solving beats a one-design fits all approach.  Organizational/Executive Function Coaches sometimes get rigid about methods and like to “kid-proof” their designs.  We do not like clutter, or multi-use objects –like a pencil case that is also a study-tool.  But organizational strategies must intersect with the improvisational nature of active learning.  Think pre-school classroom and all those objects that are labeled, so children engage with print as they gather materials throughout the day!  Great students learn to improvise strategically and keep their study needs foremost in their minds.  Cognitive flexibility and functional independence are always goals for executive function coaching.  Modeling techniques for meeting personal learning goals is a great way to help kids learn to help themselves.