Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about language and the power that it has to affect ourselves, our students and the environment around us. I had a student in my class one year who was really struggling academically, organizationally, but definitely not imaginatively. No matter which subject we were on, be it math, science, socials, English or Health, he was somehow magically drawn into the world of StarWars or other epic battles armed only with his erasers and his 1 inch pencil nubs. As soon as the lesson would start, and sometimes well before, this student could instantly transport himself into other worlds – anywhere but where we were. Trying to get him to be in the moment, or even in the room was a task- somehow at the beginning of every math lesson or writing task he needed a drink, or to go to the bathroom, to leap across the room to grab something from his bag or to fight off the evil warlords who held the kryptonite.
I would find myself struggling with this student- how to keep him engaged, on track, and on task even for just a few minutes before he slipped away again- and also still manage my other 25+ students? I realized that I was becoming increasingly frustrated at many (what I saw as) failed attempts to help him to develop better work habits. Was it an academic barrier he was facing? Were the lessons not engaging enough? Did he simply need something basic like more water or less sugar?
Getting to the root of a problem can sometimes be so complex, and as I teacher, I only have the power to change so much- mainly, my own behaviour:) Faye Brownlie, an expert in working with struggling learners (http://youngreaders.ca), recently challenged a group of colleagues and I to become aware of the way that we speak with students who have the most challenges. She mentions that students need at least a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative comments before s/he will be able to believe something differently about herself/himself. 4:1. Wow, if anything, I feel like sometimes I have used 4:1 comments in the corrective: positive reinforcement ratio. I wondered about the way that I was “motivating” my students and if fear was one of the underlying entities behind my choices of words.
Sometimes it is hard to decipher what a child needs to be motivated, but I know that for me in my own life, fear has only been a positive motivator when there was any real danger. Of course if there really was a bear licking his chompers as he pounced on me for breakfast, then fear would be a great thing to have. Running away screaming is probably a better, if not the best, option:) It would also happen to positively result in me keeping my left leg for another few seasons and passing my yearly fight-or-flight test with flying colours. In the case of motivating children, inciting a sense of anxiety is most certainly only adding more difficulty to an already negative situation. So what could I do instead (of using fear) to help motivate struggling learners- especially those that struggle within the traditional school system?
I suspected that in my sincere effort to help this student to get things in order, I was being unwittingly hard on him. He was getting anxious instead of more confident and a wake up call for me came from a discussion with his mom. She mentioned that he was losing sleep at night over a project (that we had been working diligently on in class) and that she had noticed his behaviour becoming more nervous. Yikes! Had I played a role in this? It was one of those moments that make you take a step back, breathe, and endeavour to do better:) So I started to change just one simple thing. And, as a wise person once told me, something is better than nothing.
I started by calling him “Superhero.” No real rhyme or reason behind it other than it seemed like a cool nickname at the time and I myself had experienced a positive change within myself when a mentor of mine started doing that with me. Both in team and staff situations over the years, I have seen myself rise to challenges and be successful through positive interactions with leaders. Even something as small as giving someone a (positive) nickname can promote those underlying principles that can give another human being the courage to accept themselves, make changes as necessary and develop the skills necessary for success.
To me, a Superhero is someone who is confident, who keeps others safe from harm and who works to help others out. I wanted this student to know that- to feel accepted, safe, and that he belonged. Of course I don’t really know if this kind of a thing had any real long lasting or profound effect, but I did start to see things I hadn’t seen in a little while– a smile here, a proudly walking kid with a puffed out chest there, and the best moment of all- the first time I said it.
“Hey! How’s my superhero?”
“How’s my Superhero?”
“Yeah! How’s my superhero?”
Big grin, “”Uh, I’m good”
“Ok, see you on the morning walk!”
Bursts out the door with a huge smile on his face, “Hey guys! Miss (Edutriage) thinks I’m a superhero!”
And I smiled to myself… I gotta do that more often:) Maybe now he can use the incredible powers of his imagination to see himself as he really is – a Super cool human being (no matter what) and that I’m here to cheer him on!
Because something is better than nothing.
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