I take the view that stretching the motivation and performance of these children, at school or at home, begins with where our attitude is placed. When children hear too many negative messages, too much criticism and fail to meet expectations too often, they begin to believe that this must be their lot. After years of this, most children are corralled into a role: the clown, the victim, the runaway, the disrupter, the aggressor or the outsider. By the time some begin their middle primary education they think and act in negative ways. They have developed reputations and it is very difficult to influence change.
If we wish to redirect the attitudes of our children we should start by examining our own attitudes. We have to appreciate that redesigning the thinking of our children has as much to do with redesigning our own thinking. Both anecdotal and research based evidence show that the success-based adult attitudes, more than anything else, will make the greatest difference for children who present challenging or despondent behaviours.
As we re-design our thinking, whether we're doing this as an educator or a parent, there are a few foundation concepts that I keenly embrace.
There is no substitute for honest and caring relationships. The truth is tips and strategies rarely live up to expectations if the child does not trust in the relationship. A quality relationship enables behaviour to be reshaped, offers the scope for mistakes to be made without the mistake causing a catastrophe, and quality relationships also allow the word 'sorry' to be exchanged more freely. In my view, a quality relationship is the greatest gift we ever hand to another human being, young or old.
Ask, "What would help?"
So often it is not the idea that will tip the balance, but the act of asking and participating with a child or teen that makes the greatest difference. Assess whether their motivational difficulties are global or relate more specifically to school. Not surprisingly, difficulties to persevere are often confined to school. Students say, "I am not motivated by schoolwork; It doesn't do anything for me; I want to be successful, but can't see the point in what I am doing." Reassure them that they are not disordered, peculiar or sick. Many fine human beings have had low motivation about school and schoolwork. They may, at the moment, find it difficult to embrace its relevancy, and while this is not helpful, it is quite normal. A critical step is to normalise their attitude. Begin by teasing out what they enjoy and what they are good at. Work to create balance and rekindle interests, talents and areas that arouse success feelings. Together, determine an initial, easy-to-implement idea that might gain them a foothold to success in an area they are struggling with.
Goals invite change.
Without consciously setting goals and thinking about how the future might be, even at a very simple level, individuals choose to accept a future that someone else will decide for them. Before anyone can set a goal and work towards it, they have to have an idea of what they want. Discovering what an individual wants, and the advantages of achieving it, can initiate a process of change. A good beginning may be to ask "What do you want?" The vision they hold can be turned into reality through jointly designing small step-by step-solutions. Achieving small goals, accomplished hour by hour, day-by-day or week-by- week provides evidence of change, and hope for the future.
When we become involved in assisting someone to change their behaviour we need to be determined to make it a progressive, successful experience. The deliberate building of well defined structures not only promotes successful opportunities, but also avoids the classic pitfall of expecting too much, too fast. Most importantly, every child needs to know is to know that we believe in them. We can be their inspiration or their nemesis.
I, along with many others, believe that young people who make it from difficult, even apparently hopeless situations, have often had just one significant adult take an interest in them. As soon as they connected with their mentor, changes in their thinking, optimism and cooperation began to unfold. Progressively, their world became more predicable which allowed them perform more confidently. By gradually accepting strategies to build better relationship and improved academic skills, many children found the route to success. Increasingly, there is a growing awareness that mentoring is a steadying, revitalising treatment for individuals battling with learning problems, emotional overload and immaturities.
Get smarter. Start now.
It is common to see children within the diverse ability group fall into failure-beliefs which breed disappointment, withdrawal, negativity and refusal. Our part must be to break failure-cycles before the young fall prey to demoralisation.
Tell your students, or children, about the latest brain research. It shows us that the brain is a dynamic organ capable of changing, growing stronger and making new connections with use. This flies in the face of the 'old-school' view that each of us is born with an IQ set in stone. Knowing that the brain continues to develop through feeling, thinking, choosing and reflecting should make a world of difference to our approach, and the optimism of our young. Emphasise that the more they use their brain it will make a connections and this will increase their memory and learning. This understanding is a far more powerful predictor of success than top school grades, gender, family wealth, race and many other variables.
Children and teens with learning difficulties and challenging behaviours do it so much tougher than those without. Consequently, so do their parents and teachers. Yet, when young learners begin to disconnect from their part in the learning relationship it can throw the adults in their life into complete disarray, even into conflict with one another. For children with problematic immaturities, opportunities for their engagement and re-engagement to learn will be measured by the willingness of the adults in their lives - educators and parents - to communicate, work together, persevere and manipulate resources. In the end, if we fail to effectively communicate and resourcefully manage the challenges, we should not be surprised when our children's disengagement, avoidance and refusal become expert.
What we say and do everyday makes the difference.
Like it or not, our children and our students mimic us. Parents who live happy, well-connected, balanced lives send a potent message about how to live life to their children. Similarly, teachers who model calm, thoughtful interactions drip feed a powerful emotionally stabilising signal to their children. Alternatively, modelling the loss of control, using sarcasm, showing disrespect and saying pointless or damaging things in the heat of the moment teaches children to do exactly the same.
This sort of miracle doesn't happen.
It seems hard for some to accept the truth. That is, progress is slower for children with difficulties, disorders, syndromes and developmental delay. It is the way it is, and frequently it's the simple, daily things we do that will make the greatest difference to our children's development and happiness.
Without this awareness, it's all too common to see parents jump on board the professional merry-go-round. First, a diagnosis is sought for their child from a psychologist or health care professional. This sensible beginning sharpens understandings about the difficulty, presents options about conventional interventions and can provide refinement of intelligent ways to manage. Then, visits to a profusion of experts, intensifies the parent's quest to find a cure for their child. In these situations it is the child who loses out. Rather than finding the miracle, too much intervention, too intensively, for too long delivers a message to children that something must be seriously wrong. It reinforces that someone else, or some new slick program to hit town, will take responsibility for their difficulties and will fix their lives.
A better approach is one that focuses on the child being a whole, healthy human being. Yes, they may have problems, but the adoption of thoughtful ideas towards friendship-building, goal setting, targeting some academic remediation from time to time, coordinating curriculum adjustments at school and appreciating their unique attributes is most effective.
Share your power
The fact is that children have little power in their lives. Their lives are very much controlled by the adults, at school and at home. Sooner than later most children develop a psychological need to have a little more power. Yet, as they begin to flex their emotional muscle many parents and teachers are caught off guard, and it is not unusual to see power struggles ensue. I think it's healthy for all of us to develop an understanding of what power is, and what the advantages are in sharing it. There is an old, one-sided view about desperately clinging on to power. It decrees that power cannot be shared, especially with someone younger, inexperienced and who is bound to make mistakes. Those who wield their power in this way protect their "ball of power" at all cost, because they feel that if it is shared it will diminish. I take the opposite view. The "ball of power" is there for the sharing. It can be shared and needs to be shared with young maturing individuals. As a child lights their candle from their parent's or teacher's "ball of power" they see that they are cared for, they learn the art of sharing, the skills of negotiation and what true responsibility is. They begin to learn how to truly live their own lives and make their own footprints in the world. Be instrumental in helping children to light their candles and develop their own "ball of power", and in the process, you are likely to diminish ugly oppositional behaviours and invite emotional growth.
My philosophy is that it doesn't take much to make all the difference in the world to a child. For me, making a positive difference to a young, developing human being has to be our greatest legacy. As an educator, I often reflect on the role I may have played in guiding the journey of a student who experienced difficulties? I ask myself, whether I made a difference? Did I embrace their differences or simply tolerated them? Did I discount my contribution by succumbing to, "Yes, but that won't work because ..." Was I influential in helping to put them on the road to personal success?
It is our spirit and our day-to-day effort that will shape what children learn, how they learn, how they relate to others and how they see themselves. It is us who makes the difference. After all, we are the first generation of teachers and parents to truly understand learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorders, giftedness, ADHD and so on. The question we will eventually be judged on is, "how well did we deal with these young people?"
Mark Le Messurier