This past weekend I attended the Heart Mind Conference in Vancouver and it got me thinking about how we can be more successful at school. Specifically, I wonder how we can change the trajectory for kids who struggle. I worry about their long-term chances at completing school and being happy and fulfilled in adulthood.
I had the opportunity to hear Paul Tough speak. Paul talked about the importance of challenges – he argues too often we don’t let kids fail and learn from their mistakes. When kids are protected from adversity they don’t develop the ability to persevere and limit their chances for success in adulthood. Children should face challenges where the outcome is unknown and the stakes are manageable. This way they face adversity and develop character (grit, determination, etc.) that will give them the skills and confidence in adulthood.
Paul also referred to the adversity gap (his words) that exists in our society. Some kids face little or no adversity while others face too much. Often, children living in poverty face ongoing adversity and challenges that are beyond their control. Paul argues that this kind of adversity does not create resiliency. In fact, a child who is under constant stress is far more likely to have serious physical and emotional health issues and are at a far greater risk for addiction or obesity.
The point of this post is to look at some of the things that we can do to counteract this. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I’m beginning to connect the dots and these are my initial musings.
Just before Paul spoke, Goldie Hawn presented and talked about her foundation. She explained that a brain under stress cannot learn. Kids in poverty are often on the edge of “fight or flight” – all the brain’s energy is focused on survival and therefore cannot release itself to learn. While we can’t control what happens to kids outside of school, we can support them inside our walls. We need to be intentional in creating supportive, safe environments in our schools, because when it comes to learning the environment is key. Students also have to understand their brain and how it works. Once a student understands how their brain works, they can learn how to slow it down and regulate themselves. When students are able to regulate their emotions, they are able to devote their energy to learning. Her Mind Up curriculum, developed with Kim Schonert-Reichel was developed with this end in mind – over 3600 BC educators were implementing it last year.
Students are an important piece of the equation, but how can we as adults change to better serve our students and create the kind of environment that allows students to struggle appropriately to develop character?
Tough questions indeed.
I’m not sure I have the answers, but I think we need to take care of our own emotional needs in order to give the kids what they need. It is powerful (and empowering) to give students our undivided attention, but when we are emotionally drained we can’t do it. We need to find balance and focus on what is good in our lives. Shawn Achor talks about rational optimism – looking at both the good and the bad in a situation and knowing that your behaviour matters. As educators, like many professions, get tired. I think we need to give ourselves permission to recharge. Sometimes the most productive choice is taking a break. Too often, we feel the pressure of work and don’t take time to take care of ourselves. Like Paul Tough says when we are under constant stress and anxiety our brain (and body) begins to shut down. When that occurs, it’s the kids (and us) that suffer.
In the end, how do we give kids the best chance for success? I’m not really sure, but I do know that being purposeful of taking care of the hearts and minds of people in our school community is the first step.