Teaching Kids To Get Up Off The Mat

A friend and I were talking about schools and education the other day — private versus public schools, the variety of philosophies of learning, etc.

He reminisced on his “tough love” education and mused about today’s soft approach with kids, telling me a story about his kids’ soccer league. Everyone in town gets a trophy at the end of the season, regardless of their team’s win/loss record.

This “Everyone-Gets-A-Trophy” phenomenon is relatively new in our culture. It builds, in my mind, an empty self esteem, one that is based on an “I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything, but just because I’m here” kind of attitude.

My friend believes people, particularly children, learn best when they are really challenged, faced with failure, tested in their resiliency and problem-solving skills. He was telling me how tired he was of kids getting thanked when they clean up their toys, or praised when they share with another kid. Shouldn’t this just be expected behavior?  Children will never learn the essential fortitude to “get up off the mat” after a disappointment if they are constantly being lavished with compliments simply for being a decent human being.

This got me wondering. It occurs to me that there is a danger in giving empty platitudes to kids with the positive reinforcement that child development has become suffused with. It made me cringe at the thought of my own teaching style – full of “Good jobs!” and “You’re such a good friend!” and “That is such smart thinking!” I witness children directly and powerfully responding to praise, and I know with certainty it can be an easy – and lazy – way to motivate kids.

It can also be deleterious. Several articles I’ve read recently touchon this very topic. The authors posit that with this vacuous kind of praise, children not only get hooked on adult approval, but also can develop a kind of ego disorder that ultimately undoes their ability to work hard. So here’s the crux of the issue, pared down to its essence: at the end of the day, is adversity the best education?

Studies show that children who are told they are “smart” actually become less successful over time than those told they are “hard workers”. And yet, children in early childhood crave the reassurance that they are doing things the right way and pleasing the adults in their life. When learning something new, they require teacher guidance and often seek an end point that is “right” – e.g., the right answer, a beautiful drawing, the cooperative choice. As a teacher, it’s easy to respond in this way, falling into the ‘praise trap.’ You’ve got a classroom of kids to manage, and inevitably you’ve got an end point you hope the kids get to.

So what of self motivation versus teacher approval, of experience in failure in order to practice “getting it right?” Why not reserve praise for the redemption stories?  If we as teachers can create opportunities for this kind of learning and foster circumstances that allow kids the room to recover from mistakes, we enable them to develop pride and confidence in their own ability to … get up off the mat!

In my classroom, we’ve been practicing what we call “do-overs”.  This is something you can only do with children who have not yet become too self conscious. You allow for the mistake to happen, whether it’s a mean gesture, a wrong answer, a disrespectful tone, or destructive behavior of some sort. Children often catch themselves immediately after doing something they feel guilty or bad about and don’t know how to respond. The “do-over” is simply a low-pressure opportunity for a child to stop, reflect and start the interaction or activity over again without penalty.

So recently when a child demanded in a rude way that I help him with something, I didn’t react.  The other children in the class looked at me anxiously, knowing this child was being disrespectful. I calmly, without judgment, said: “Oh … that sounded kind of unfriendly. Let’s try that again. Can you say it again in a different way?”

The key here was that I wasn’t being critical, instead just making an observation.  I gave him some room.  I actually even walked away while he gathered himself and said it to me again, this time in a much more acceptable way.  “Great,” I told him. “That sounded so much better.”  And we all moved on, him having had the formative experience of redeeming himself, and saving face.

This practice can be incorporated in a variety of contexts throughout the classroom.  Ultimately, the hope is that the kids come to use it themselves without teacher intervention. I heard an exchange one day where a child was being excluded from a game.  Another one looked worried and after a moment said:  “Lets start over and let him play this time!”

So, perhaps creating a classroom culture that is safe enough for kids to know they have the room to recover from a mistake can actually motivate them to fix it themselves. The praise then comes in the form of acknowledging their reparation. This can be a powerful teaching tool and an excellent alternative to empty praise for things like picking up classroom toys.

It’s not to advocate for mistakes or disregard praise and encouragement, but instead to cheer for the effort it takes to fix a mistake.  At the end of the day, this experience gives children a rich sense of self and resiliency and confidence to know that they can come back from a failing and get off the mat and move on all the better for it.

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2 Responses to Teaching Kids To Get Up Off The Mat

  1. Andrew Compaine says:

    I particularly like the idea of repair and redemption. The message is that we all make mistakes, and that courage is in facing those mistakes and making reparation. In so doing, we have redeemed our mistake and learned a lesson. Not the harsh and critical ‘learn a lesson’ from being scolded, but learned a lesson by our own reflection and our own repair. So often, I see adults in therapy who have developed an unquenchable need to be adored and require others’ unconditional approval. We can’t be independent if we are desperate for approval. Nor can we appreciate our differences if we expect unconditional adoration. Rather, relationships depend on honest feedback and much of what we do may not please others. We should instill a wish to redeem our mistakes….think re-cycling redemption centers..rather than a wish to be slathered with praise. We teach through mistakes and not through praise and right answers. Very provocative piece, Kate. And, you get at much of my discomfort with progressive education which often leads to crippled and unmotivated adults craving praise. Mothers use praise with their infants to shape their behavior. But, it is only one technique for re-enforcement and can be overused. As children develop, they should be taught to tolerate more and more honest reactions and feedback and not blanket praise.

  2. Marie says:

    Andrew, you make some good points here. Between the blog post and what you wrote, it reminds me that life pretty much gives you do-overs. If you don’t learn something the first time around, you get another chance (and another, and another) to learn that same thing. So perhaps we are never too old for a do-over, and our children can see how we handle those as well.

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