At the beginning of this past school year, I was conferring with a student about her newly published Writing Workshop project. On the rubrics we used for self-evaluation purposes, she gave herself consistently low scores. When I asked her about this, she told me that she always got low scores in school and naturally thought her scores on this project would be low, too. At this moment, I realized that even though our conference was supposed to be about writing, discussing specific skills, strategies, and techniques wasn’t the right approach to take. Instead, we needed to have a conversation about something larger—namely, her overall outlook on school and how she viewed her own capabilities. Until her perspective changed, it was unlikely that she would make significant academic progress. I needed to help her build her confidence and expect more from herself. This article features a set of tips that we, as parents and teachers, can use anytime we face this situation.
See the big picture. Children need to know that just because they may be going through a difficult period now, it doesn’t mean things will always be this way. Progress may not happen right away, but it will happen if we focus our attention in the right places. We need to adopt a long-term view. This leads into the next two tips.
Focus on consistent effort. Children tend to view less than satisfactory school performance as a reflection of their intelligence and may think they’re simply not smart enough to do well academically. We must dispel this belief as strongly as possibly. Effort, not intelligence, is the key to success, and we must encourage kids to work hard and persevere on a daily basis.
Set higher personal standards. As human beings, we typically perform at the level we expect from ourselves. At the gym, for example, I am more likely to complete twenty pushups if I expect myself to do that many. I am unlikely to do twenty if I expect to do five. Children will perform better in school and be more confident when they begin to expect more from themselves.
Be patient. Part of adopting a long-term view involves understanding that improvement, at least at first, will likely be incremental. Children who usually score in the 70’s on math assessments probably aren’t going to start earning scores in the 90’s right away. Small steps will ultimately add up to large leaps.
Celebrate the positive. Call attention the first time your child or student makes noticeable progress on an assessment or piece of schoolwork. Recognizing children’s effort will boost their confidence and increase their motivation to keep working hard. One success will lead to another. Keep recognizing progress as the child’s performance continues to improve. As the old saying goes, nothing motivates like success.
Provide unconditional support and encouragement. In any improvement process there will likely be ups and downs. No matter how well children may do on any given piece of work, it’s important to reinforce the message, unwaveringly, that they are incredibly capable and can accomplish anything to which they set their minds. This type of encouragement will help build resilience, as well as confidence.
Understand the limits of talk. While encouraging children and providing unconditional support are crucial, talk, by itself, will only take us so far. Confidence is an earned commodity and can’t be transmitted or given to children via talking. Confidence will only grow when children see themselves earning higher scores and feel an increasing sense of mastery with their schoolwork.
Share stories of others who have made significant progress. When we find ourselves going through a difficult time, it’s easy to think that we’re the only ones who have ever experienced this type of struggle. Sharing stories with children about yourself, family members, and well-known people can help them understand that they’re not alone and that others have met challenges and overcome obstacles similar to the ones they may be facing now. The main reason I wrote 2-Minute Biographies for Kids was to help children draw inspiration from others whose life stories may resonate with their life stories.
Consider involving peers. In my experience, I have noticed that many children work harder and perform far better on a piece of work or project when they are paired with high-achieving students. Working with a super capable peer brings out the best in these children and can have a lasting effect. If you believe this strategy may benefit your child, consider scheduling a homework “play date” after school one day with a high-achieving classmate.