I provide a lot of professional development to teachers. Many of these seminars explore the roots of behaviours we find challenging in kids. They shed light on the emotions underlying troubling behaviours, and help participants understand where or how a child is stuck.
But, while we are doing the work of supporting a child to grow emotionally, we need to be aware that they may also be stuck seeing themselves as the “bad” kid and be convinced that everyone else sees them that way. They might have internalized the labels that have been put on them and now see themselves as “aggressive”, “mean”, or “lazy”, for example. This can be so challenging for us as educators, who so wish to support our students to become their best selves. We may see a child’s potential, but that does not mean that the child can see or feel this. In fact, they may see the exact opposite:
I’m dumb. I’m bad. I’m mean.
This struggle is something that often comes up towards the end of my seminars. Teachers will ask me, “How can we get kids who see themselves as the ‘bad’ kid to get out of that role? How can we inspire them to be better people?”
Well, I know inspiration isn’t the ticket for me. I have found myself many times listening to a talk and being incredibly inspired by the speaker. I can sit there feeling excited, moved, and churned up inside. I can be full of renewed ambitions and flooded with enthusiasm to be healthier, finish all my projects, and take the world by storm. Then nine o’clock hits and I am eating chocolate and watching Netflix.
Sigh. It didn’t last long. I wish it was so easy.
Willpower usually isn’t enough to create lasting change. Inspiration can help—it can let us know where we want to go and the types of lives we want to lead… but it takes more than inspiration to get us there.
Shifting Labels through Everyday Experiences
Our identity has a huge impact on us: who we think we are matters a lot. It can be really hard for kids who see themselves as the “bad” kid to get out of that role. However, if we can help our students to experience themselves in new ways, their identities can expand. Kids need to feel it, experience it—not just be inspired or encouraged to do or be something better or different, but to be placed into situations in which they can discover their best selves and know on a visceral level that change is possible. They need opportunities to experience themselves differently and see themselves in a new light.
This doesn’t have to mean taking a troubled child on an epic journey of self-discovery. In fact, that might be too much too soon! Rather, we can offer experiences to our most challenged students in lots of little ways that create tiny openings for change—miniature cracks in their negative or limited ideas of who they are, so that they can expand beyond these identities.
Even small things, like asking a child who rarely shows any leadership initiative to take charge of something for one minute, can help. It doesn’t have to be huge: you can ask them to turn off the lights as you’re getting set up for a video screening, or to help you hand out paper to the rest of the class for an activity. They may be surprised by the ask, at first; but then, they get to feel their ability to lead – even if it is only for one minute – and start to believe they are capable of this new role. Instead of waiting for our students to show us their leadership abilities before we are willing to see them that way, we should live by the opposite mantra: if we support every student to experience leadership before they themselves think they are capable of it, then we can help them to discover this capacity in themselves. But we have to be willing to see this potential capacity in our students first.
This is the same for all the discoveries we hope for our students. These kinds of everyday experiences allow students to loosen their ideas of who they are by experiencing the feeling of being something different – whether that “something” is a leader, or a caring person or a capable student.
We need to get creative with finding ways to help our students to experience themselves differently. If we look closely, there are opportunities everywhere:
Carter, I see that Digby (the class guinea pig) seems to be a little out of sorts right now. You strike me as someone who might be good at helping him. Do you think you could be his caretaker this week and see if he is eating and drinking enough? If you notice anything, please let me know what you think he needs.
Deeksha, I need a responsible helper and thought of you. Would you mind bringing this envelope to the office for me please?
The most important thing to remember is to offer these everyday experiences to the kids who have the greatest need for an opportunity to see themselves differently and discover their capacity for something new. Very often, we take the opposite approach: we only ask the children who already exhibit behaviours that we associate with things like leadership or responsibility to take on certain roles and tasks. In this way, we contribute to the reinforcement of labels like who is “good” and “bad”, “capable” and “not capable”, “responsible” and “irresponsible”, etc.
I know that when I have a challenging student in front of me, that I often find it very hard to train my eyes to see something new and different! It’s hard to remember that a child might be stuck in a role and that I need to help them find a way out of it. But as someone who has worked with children for over 25 years, I have witnessed time and time again the extraordinary power of everyday experiences to support emotional growth.
Experiences matter. They become part of us.
Our belief in the inherent goodness and ability of each of our students matters. If we offer them experiences to eventually know and feel this for themselves, it will lead to meaningful change over time.
I hope you’ll give this a try. Think of the one student in your class that is stuck in a role, and what you can do, in a small way, to help them step into a new role. I’d love for you to share your ideas in the comments! Let’s start a conversation about the power of everyday experiences in the classroom to support our students in discovering their best selves.
PS: If you want to know more about creating a safe space for children to feel, read my last blog post here.