Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Course You Can Learn Anything!

My little girl is starting kindergarten this fall.  She is very excited to go.  Preschool has been a wonderful learning experience for her, and her expectations are all positive. Much in contrast were my feelings about an approaching new school year when I was young.

From 1st grade to probably my junior year in high school, my summer vacation was over when August rolled around. I spent that month worrying myself into frequent panic attacks and general anxiety. I believed, each and every summer, that this was going to be the year I would be confronted with a challenge that I could not easily learn.  I was afraid I would no longer be considered “smart.”

School takes up the greatest part of our lives when we are young. Then, when we get home from school, we get on the phone (this starts pretty early) and talk about it to our friends. How “smart” we think we are has a powerful influence on how we learn, and the shaping of our fragile self image.

My erroneous belief then was that if you learn something quickly, you were smart - and if it takes a while, then you're not smart. Sadly, this assumption was shared by most educators in the past (and parents, too), and its negative impact on students and the adults they subsequently became is impossible to measure. (For more on the science of "learning,” I highly recommend the book Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson.)

This post is about motivating our children, to learn without stress and feelings of inadequacy. Madison Avenue is the best proof we need to convince us of the power of using the right language. Let's use it in helping our children, and ourselves.

We already know better than to call our kids dumb, or “not too smart.” (In addition, let's make it a deadly sin to think of ourselves in those terms!) Let's face it, we can't motivate or inspire with phrases like, "Maybe this just isn’t your subject," "I can't believe you don't get this!" and "What's wrong with you?" Not at all helpful is giving the order "Do your homework!" like it's a punishment.

Instead, encourage your children with phrases like, "take your time,” "why not read it a couple more times?” and "practice makes the master.”  You might give an example of someone successful they admire - a favorite teacher, or a famous sports figure or musician – who had to learn and practice to become who they are today.

When they struggle or feel anxious, remind your children of all that they have already learned, as evidence that they can learn “anything and everything” else.  While we teach them patience and practice, we might just learn it for ourselves.

My mom used to reassure me during my moments of panic that everything new I would face was no different than learning the ABC’s - that it would be just another new idea and no more difficult than anything I had learned so far. I dismissed it as “mom talk.”  I have discovered that she was actually right.

Tasks or subjects we think of as “complicated” or “hard” are those that require learning more than one idea or fact.  But even difficult subjects are still learned as one idea at a time. The use of a computer is still rejected by many adults for being too “complicated,” (to which most kids today would say "What?") when in fact it's no more than learning one step (idea) then learning the next step (again, one idea) and so on until you reach the last step. Even the geeks and computer wizards learned it all one step at the time.

All school subjects are taught as a new idea based on ideas already learned. As adults, we acquire the skills necessary for our jobs in the same way. What makes us successful? We have practice! When you think of learning in this way, it will take the apprehension out of taking on new responsibility, retraining for a different job, or even going back to school.  After all, look what you have already learned!

I am not overlooking the fact that there are individuals who may be genetically predisposed to “get the idea” quicker than others. But that’s far from a guarantee for success, or a happy and well-balanced life in the future. (I am sure that there are some very high IQs on Riker’s Island.)

I do know what it takes for anyone to "Succeed,” and that is patience, practice, and encouraging reinforcement. Remember that ABC’s are just the beginning of your learning journey, and there really are no limits as to where it can go!

Good luck with your goal!

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