* I wrote this piece for parents in our school community but here’s the thing… all of these strategies for doing hard things are equally effective for adults! Many thanks to Martha Beck for her ideas about thought dissolution and turtle steps and to Byron Katie for “The Work”.
Often, when a student is struggling with some aspect of life, the adults who care about her/him jump directly into “fixing” mode. We make charts, purchase an expensive organizer or start compiling a collection of relevant articles. Of course, we are trying to be of service but it’s possible that we’ve missed an important step in helping the student thrive.
“Is it true?”
Students, and humans of all ages, believe untrue things.
“I’m never going to be good at Math.”
“The person I like is never going to like me back because my body isn’t perfect.”
“I’ll never do well in school like my sister. She’s the smart one and I’m the pretty one. Everyone always says so.”
“Nobody likes me.”
“I’m not going to be accepted at a good university.”
“I’m always going to a disappointment to my parents.”
These limiting beliefs become the canvas on which we paint our life story. Notice that they often contain the word “always” or “never”. Sometimes the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or an excuse for not taking risks or believing in ourselves.
Before we jump into action to help a child fix their problem, it’s worth taking some time to explore her/his limiting belief. Our thoughts about the world are often far more catastrophic than the actual world in which we live.
We start to do this by listening quietly while they talk about what is going on. If it’s difficult to get your child talking, you might engage them in conversation while you are washing dishes side by side or when you are both in the front seat of the car. Eye contact can be challenging when we’re talking about hard things. When we see a child suffering, it’s tempting to immediately jump into action: to share our theory about what’s happening or tell a story about something similar that happened when we were young. It may be more helpful to give them the gift of listening, to encourage them to say more, and to ask them a series of non-judgmental questions about “what makes you say that/feel that way?” It’s also worth noting that the silence that occurs during deep listening may feel a bit scary or awkward but leaving those gaps is important because sometimes it takes people time to figure out what they want to say and how to say it.
“Is what you believe true? Can you be certain that it’s true? How would you feel if you didn’t believe this?”
“Is there something else that explains what you believe?”
“Let’s try the opposite of what you believe. Could that be true? Share three reasons why.”
When the student begins exploring alternate explanations about how they are feeling, something important may shift within them. They may feel freer and more hopeful.
For some students, the recognition that their thought is not true will be all the help they need. Other students will require more support and strategies.
Discuss past behaviours that led to success
“Tell me about some specific things you have done in the past that helped with this problem.” This question propels the student into a mental scavenger hunt for past strategies they’ve used to be successful in this particular area. Our goal is not to “cheer up” the student up but to provide an opportunity for them to feel more competent and confident. Take notes and give these to the student so she/he has a record of these strategies for future reference.
Turtle steps towards change
Challenging situations didn’t get that way in one day. Like problems, solutions take time. Students are most successful when they start with small turtle steps in the direction of their goal. Through these small actions, the student starts taking control rather than being controlled by the situation. This helps them feel less helpless. We encourage students to generate their own ideas:
“Today, at break, I have an appointment with my teacher to ask my question.”
“My friend agreed to let me practice my presentation with her today at lunch.”
“Tonight I’m going to go to bed 30 minutes earlier so I feel better at school.”
For many of our students, slow and steady is the right speed for addressing challenges, changing behaviours and making better choices. You and your child can work together to find the right way for you to support them as they make these changes.