Not that long ago, as an adult learner, I signed up for tennis lessons. I had always wanted to play, but just never got around to learning how. I headed to my first group lesson excited. But there was also this strange nervous feeling deep in my stomach that I hadn’t anticipated. I am, generally, a pretty confident person. Professionally, I frequently advise people to just get out there and try something new—whatever it is—and that the thoughts of “what if I fail” are just that, only thoughts. But going to that first tennis lesson and listening to my own self-doubting mental soundtrack when I missed a ball or tripped over my own feet gave me a good dose of empathy for kids.

Unlike adults, kids don’t have a whole lot of choice about when and if they learn something new. Sure, we may ask them before signing up for soccer or dance or music instruction.. But readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic—well they don’t have much of a choice. In our culture, kids are going to school and gosh darn it they are going to learn academics. If I, as a confident, mature adult, experienced doubts about learning something new by choice for one hour a week, can you imagine the kinds of doubts most kids must have when first learning to read, write, and add and subtract for seven hours a day, five days a week? Those doubts are inevitably compounded for the significant chunk of kiddos for whom reading, writing, and math does not come easily, or for kids who are dealing with social or emotional difficulties.

So how do we balance the need to help our children learn while supporting them and empathizing with how difficult and can be to put yourself “out there” and risk vulnerability and failure when trying something new? It is important to remember that there is no learning without some level of failure. As parents, educators, and other helping adults, we need to monitor what a child is capable of and let them experience the smaller failures while supporting and encouraging them. Reminding them that no one learns everything the first time around and that there is nothing lost by trying something new even if you are not immediately successful may help. Reminding them that they are loved and worthy of love unconditionally goes far. As a society, we tend to place a huge emphasis on accomplishment and goal-driven behavior. When providing feedback and praise to children, it is important to separate the “person” from the “act”. For instance, one can say “I am so proud of you because you got 100% on your spelling test! You’re an awesome speller!”, or one can say “I am so proud of you because you worked so hard to learn your words! You are determined and applied yourself. That’s something I hope you feel proud about, too.” Though it may seem subtle, the second response does several important things:

  • it places the emphasis on the process of learning and the child’s application of him/herself to the task
  • it takes the emphasis off of the end result (the test score)–ultimately, the end result (the way we measure learning) is not as important as the act of learning (the process)
  • it encourages him/her to congratulate him/herself, an important skill. Adults don’t always receive external praise and must learn to provide themselves with their own positive feedback
  • it doesn’t define the child by his or her accomplishments—the first response “you’re an awesome speller” uses a child’s test score to define a portion of their personhood. The flaw in this logic is that if the children internalize the idea that “I am what I do”, then when they inevitably do poorly on something, they will incorporate that poor grade into their self-definition, leading potentially to feelings of low self-esteem/self-worth, shame, and doubt.

With back to school season here, be mindful of your little ones and everything they are asked to do (without their choice) and with no guarantees of success. Applaud them for taking risks and putting themselves “out there” as learners, and reframe their perceived failures as a necessary and expected part of the learning process. Share with them how you as an adult feel nervous when trying something new and how you sometimes fail but learn through the process. Be empathic when they feel the same way. Above all, hold them close and love them for who they are and not just for what they do. Happy “Return to School” everyone!