Vulnerability on the First Day of School: Weakness, Worry, Worthiness, and Seven Ways to Ensure Success

On the first day of school Leila’s mother said: “Leila was looking forward to school all summer. Then two nights ago she started getting anxious.”

I know Leila struggles with “giftedness.” Nonetheless, I asked, “What was she anxious about?”

“Will my friends be in my classroom this year?”

All children are completely different, each with their own peculiar set of strengths, weaknesses and things to worry about. However, the number one reason children go to school is to be with other children, and regardless of whether they charge into school on the first day all smiles or cling to their parents’ legs, they are all the same in one major respect: their bottom-line aim is to avoid embarrassment.

And embarrassment is a possibility for each one of them. “Will I say something stupid in opening circle?” “Will I measure up?” “Will anyone like me?” “Am I worthy?”

We humans are social animals. We all want to be worthy and are aware that our weaknesses put us at risk. We are anxious that our vulnerabilities will trip us up. So in most social environments we lead with our strengths, trying to hide our weaknesses. We can expend a great deal of psychic energy trying to hide those weaknesses.

And yet, school is usually designed to make hiding hard. Continue reading

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Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence II

After reading “Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence” Lyn decided to try the approach and told me this story about her two-year-old daughter Uma: Continue reading

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Banishing Bullying: Ten Disciplines of a Learning Leader

Late in the fall two middle school teachers came to my office with a dilemma: “We don’t want to be guilty of grade inflation, but the grading system isn’t fair. Sara, for instance, works really hard. She always does her homework and participates in class. She is actually a great student, but she is math-phobic. She keeps failing her tests. We don’t know what to do.”

I asked, “Well, you say she is a great student. What does that look like? What does ‘participates in class’ look like?”

“She’s just great at working with others.”

“Yes, but what does that look like? If we can describe it we can measure it, if we can measure it, we can grade it.”

“Well, she builds on other people’s ideas…” Continue reading

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Can I Trust My Teen?

A number of years ago, as I was driving north with my nineteen-year old daughter, she said: “Dad, you never gave me the No Smoking Lecture.”

“I know,” I replied. “I always trusted you.”

“But I needed it.”

“What do you mean, you needed it?”

“You do know I smoked, right?”

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Taking Responsibility

The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.

While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.

I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:

“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“Well, Johnny…”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Yes, but…”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
“Yes, but…”
…and so on until he gets it.

I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

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