Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”
BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.
What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters: Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?
If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar. Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing. (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)
The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.”
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
- Need for approval
- Desire for external validation
- Fear of failure
Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
- Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
- Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
- … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
- After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
- Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!
How do we prepare students, even very young students, to constructively engage with the world they’re growing into? As educators, we must activate and exercise students’ thinking skills many times every day. Not, of course, in overly serious ways, because children must be allowed to develop at a natural pace through the stages of childhood.
Exercising Thinking Skills Can Be Fun and Relevant
Fortunately, there are ways to exercise children’s thinking skills in ways that directly improve their own day-to-day lives.
With the right kinds of questions (and zero lecturing), young children’s thinking skills can be exercised, so those skills naturally become stronger. Questions can and should be about familiar topics – like, how to: √ treat animals, √ play fairly, √ get someone’s attention. The right kinds of questions (non-leading and open-ended) will draw upon children’s hardwired honesty, common sense, and ability to empathize.
Using Critical Thinking to Find Trustworthy Websites
By the time students are in middle school they have become much less likely to ask questions around everyday elements of their lives. Why? Too embarrassing to appear ‘dumb.’ No problem. We, as their educators, can present topics of discussion for the entire class, with directives on how to discover the most trustworthy answers. (DIRECT BENEFITS: Everyone saves “face,” while gaining the benefits of what they need to learn.)
What about Cyberbullying?
How do we get students thinking about the ramifications of their online communications, without lecturing? Peer group discussions with, again, non-leading and open-ended questions helps to bring issues “into the light,” without putting anyone on the defensive. When students consistently receive opportunities to think together, they will come to conclusions, and even solutions, that work for everyone. Can you think of a better way to prepare them for developing the sophisticated problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults?
By Lilian Katz, November 2013
Not long ago I went to my physician for my annual check up. You all know what that’s like—not exactly fun!
I must have been about the 12th woman he had seen by that afternoon. As he entered the room, he said to me: “Well, Mrs. Katz, do you get a chance to get out of the house sometimes?” Not exactly the question or comment I was expecting! I calmly pointed out that I had just returned yesterday from Washington, DC, and last week from Houston and the week before that from Northern Ireland, and so forth!!!
The incident made me think that probably all occupations that involve human interactions develop clichés or standardized and routine phrases to be used during the day for regular tasks, and that these come with the job. I was reminded of that by one of my grandsons who worked for a while at his local supermarket and complained that he said maybe 1,000 times per day “Did you find everything you wanted?” and told me that by the 20th time, he really didn’t care!!
As I visit and observe teachers of young children in many different kinds of programs around the country, I am always dismayed by how frequently they move around the classroom and say to children things such as “Awesome,” “Good Job,” “Keep going…”, “That’s going well…”, and so forth.
Other clichés that come with the job are directions given to children such as “You need to sit still,” “You need to turn around,” “You need to listen,” and so forth. But children’s needs are not relevant in these kinds of situations; the teacher is trying to convey his or her wish that the child behave in a certain way. It would be more honest and meaningful, as well as realistic and clear, to say something such as “Please sit still” or “Please turn around” and then move on with the really important content of the moment.
It worries me that so few teacher-child contacts are continuous interactions. Recent evidence suggests that such meaningful continuous contingent interactions from very early in life throughout the first five or six years stimulate very important neurological development that must be accomplished by roughly about the age of 6.
So, as teachers of young children, let’s take occasional opportunities to remind ourselves that the children need informative feedback with real meaning—not every five minutes, but as appropriate occasions arise, in contexts that can provoke continuous exchanges called conversations. Sometimes a participant in a conversation just nods or smiles as the sequence continues. But it is clear to all participants what the others mean. Engaging in such intentional interactions may mean that we have to keep the total amount of interaction lower to enable more real and informative responses rather than clichés.
So let’s keep in mind that frequent and empty phrases may just be a risk of our profession that we should watch out for.
There’s a world of difference between useful questions and useless questions.
What’s the difference? Useful questions help to focus attention on intended goals. Useless questions focus on the pain required to achieve those intended goals.
The illustration at the top of this article pretty clearly demonstrates how a useful question leads attention towards focusing on the long view for achieving intended goals. Focusing on the long view helps to keep attention away from immediate downsides and discomforts. When we help our students develop and maintain focus on the long view, we’re helping them to build growth mindset.
An unhelpful or even downright useless question focuses attention on short-term gains. And short term gains rarely, if ever, develop growth mindset.
It’s not just what we ask, but also HOW we ask …
When we ask one of these questions that we hope will help to develop growth mindset, let’s always remember that wordless communication has a significant effect. Can we ask useful questions with genuine respect? Can we ask useful questions with authentic openness to whatever answers the students have, so that openings are created for honest, 2-way discussions?
Whenever our students feel genuinely heard, like all human beings, they’re much more likely to also listen. (Maybe not right away, but if they get used to being heard -genuinely, with respect and undivided attention- they’ll be more open to genuinely, with respect and undivided attention, listening to others.)
IF & WHEN we ask useful questions with a true sense of positive expectation for the wisdom of our students, they will pick up on it. (Because, as you know and experience every day, we’re all picking up on each other’s unspoken signals, feelings and judgments, pretty much all the time. Right?!!)
A few more examples of USEFUL questions to help grow students’ growth mindset …
- What do you think you might be missing?
- What are some ways you could look at this in completely different ways?
- Are you on the right track, but just missing a few pieces?
- Would brainstorming with someone else help?
- What do you think would hurt more: Giving up OR Making the extra effort to train your brain to eventually get it?
Young people experiencing anxiety, sorrow, depression, hurt feelings, social isolation – any emotional pain – are seriously handicapped in their ability to learn. Teachers can help these students, without ever analyzing the source of those students’ problems.
Get Kids Moving
All kids, to one degree or another, are kinesthetic learners. Engaging their bodies in whatever lessons we’re trying to teach makes life and learning easier for everyone!
Working movement into as many lessons as possible might seem like a tall order, but the rewards can be worth the extra effort. Try:
- Role-playing right in the middle of story time.
- Pantomime opposites during vocabulary lessons. (The teacher can say the word big, and the children can pantomime small.) Here’s link to a starter list of 38 opposites.
- Get kids learning to rhythmic beats. Kids of all ages can learn just about anything (letters, numbers, multiplication tables) while moving to a rythmic beat.
Get Kids Laughing
Laughter has the power to fuel engagement and help students learn. It’s the best medicine … we all know it. And science confirms it: when we laugh, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced. Other benefits include:
- Release of health-giving chemicals into the brain.
- Building a sense of togetherness and trust.
- Triggers creative thinking.
Get Kids Thinking and Problem Solving Together
Peer group discussions can provide important opportunities for kids to:
- Express their own understanding in their own words, and discover their significance when peers and the teacher actually listen to them.
- Learn that others feel and understand in ways to which they can relate, even if not the same ways. Thus, they discover the significance of others.
- Grow in a sense of belonging, which is the opposite of pain causing isolation and loneliness.
How can that kind of a meaningful experience be consistently brought into the classroom? It’s relatively easy:
- Find images of situations with which all the students are familiar and, to one degreee or another, are challenged by.
- Before showing the picture to the kids, create a list of 10+ open-ended questions that respect, and age-appropriately challenge, the kids’ intelligence.
- Ask the questions – then really, really listen to the kids’ answers. These discussions are not the time for lectures. When one question stops eliciting engaged discussion, ask another one, and be sure to get as many of the kids talking and sharing their ideas as you can.
Here’s a link to receive some specific ideas for helping bring kids into alignment with their own inner resources and strengths. We want to help kids learn, and sometimes we first have to help them be open to learning. Try any and all of the above 3 evidence-based approaches and then leave a comment with your results.
Empathy requires going beyond immediate self interest. Self-control is essentially empathy for one’s future self.
Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.
Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.
Can Empathy be Taught?
From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.
Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:
A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises. Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy
A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching: Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.
The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.
“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”
Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions, under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities.
Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves? Fascinating times, to be sure.
Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection
An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.
Long term consequences
Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.
Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.
Most teachers and parents understand that when we step in and solve children’s problems we’re not doing them any favors. Not really. Not in the long run. But when kids’ frustration builds and they get close to quitting, sometimes it just feels easier to get everyone (including us) past obstacles and into solution territory.
Rather than solving kids’ problems, if we’re truly committed to preparing them for a lifetime of challenges (problem-solving opportunities), we should commit to helping them build growth mindsets.
There are many ways to encourage growth mindset. Unfortunately, there are also many ways to discourage growth mindset.
To make sure we are doing all the right things to encourage perseverance in our students, our children, and even ourselves – let’s get clear on what growth mindset is. According to psychologist, Carol Dweck who popularized the term in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, people [of any and all ages] with growth mindset …
“… believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
How do we nurture kids’ perseverance? Well, we could follow Yoda’s approach by being really good examples – which, of course, is never a bad idea. Check out this video:
We should definitely avoid these common mistakes
- Praising effort alone: “Great effort” has become the consolation prize for children who aren’t actually learning. In other words, “Great effort” translates to “ineffective effort,” which sends the totally wrong message.
- “Try harder” is more empty feedback.
- “You can do anything” does not magically make it so. Students need knowledge, skills, strategies, and resources to solve their problems.
- “You’re so intelligent” and “You’re so smart” are actually counter-productive messages. (Many teachers have known this for decades, and instead use more specific statements: “You really stuck with that math problem until you figured it out. Wow.”)
- Scolding and shaming for not persevering and learning effectively. OUCH.
So … what’s so magic about the word “YET” when seeking to nurture growth mindset?
It’s not just what we say … it’s how we say it.
“Yet,” when spoken with genuine respect for effort, can lighten the crushing effects of accumulated frustration. Acknowledgement of effort – when it’s REAL, rather than empty, consolation prize praise – helps to keep minds + attitudes open for learning new strategies.
Hard work is still ahead. “YET” provides a ray of hopeful sunshine to keep on keeping on.