color photo of young boy writing with books at his sideDuring the past three months, millions of parents have had to become ”experts” in teaching and learning, familiarizing themselves with school subjects, study skills, instructional objectives, distance learning, and a lot more.  However, there’s one teaching component that is central to learning that often gets left out of the mix:  helping a child or teen’s mobilize their ”inner resources” for learning. These are the inner attitudes, understandings, and competencies that help to define oneself as a  self-directed learner.  Possessing these inner resources can make all the difference as to whether a student merely gets by, or instead, excels in their schoolwork.  Here are five ways to develop your children’s or teens’ inner resources for learning:

  1. Teach Them About Their Learning Strengths.  So much of the time, parents and teachers focus too much attention on a student’s areas of weakness in an attempt to try to shore them up.  While this can be an important part of the teaching process, it ignores an even more central task:  identifying a student’s strengths.  When you do this, you help your child or teen to develop his sense of confidence, which in turn helps to motivate him to achieve even more in his studies.  Moreover, once your child or teen has become aware of his strengths, he can use them to help tackle the difficulties. So, for example, if your child has a strength in visual-spatial awareness but a weakness in reading, he can use heavily illustrated stories or books as the central focus of his reading work.  One teacher reported that a young teen who was tuning out of a reading class was assigned a graphic novel to read.  His motivation and achievement soared.  There are a number of strength-finding checklists/questionnaires available online for no or low cost.  They include:  Edutopia’s Multiple Intelligences Self-Assessment Quiz (free), The VIA [Virtues in Action] Character Strengths Survey(free), the Gallup organization’s Clifton Youth StrengthsExplorer ($9.99) [for kids ages 10-14], and my own Neurodiversity Strengths Checklist (free).
  2. Explain the Importance of Having a Growth Mindset.  Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, reveals that people who believe that intelligence can be influenced by personal effort–what she calls a ”growth mindset”–do better academically than those who believe that you’re born with a given amount of intelligence and that’s it, you either have it or you don’t–what she calls a ”fixed mindset.”  This is important news because it suggests that by simply changing the way you think about your ability to learn new things, you can increase your learning ability.  Have a conversation with your children or teens and ask them whether they think intelligence is something you can influence by working hard or whether they think it’s fixed at birth.  If they respond with a ”fixed mindset” then go to work helping them understand the mutability of intelligence (and thus of one’s ability to achieve academically).  They might want to create an affirmation card posted where they study that says something like:  “If I work hard enough, I can learn just about anything!” or ”If I put effort into my schoolwork, I will succeed, no matter what!” or ”Even if I fail, I’ll learn something new.”  Have frequent conversations with them about how their expectations for themselves are changing (hopefully in a positive direction) as a result of having adopted this new ”growth mindset.”  I’ve written a book for young kids called Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them, which explains not only that they can get more intelligent by working hard, but that they have eight different intelligences to develop.
  3. Teach Them About How Their Brain Works.  Scientists have discovered an amazing number of new things about the child and teen brain over the past two decades.  While a lot of this research is fully understandable only to the scientists involved, there is actually a lot about the brain that can be understood by kids as young as second or third grade.  One of the most important discoveries in neuroscience is the finding that if you exercise your brain, it gets stronger (e.g. creates new nerve connections, new insulation, and even new neurons). This supports the ”growth mindset” idea described above.  There’s a good children’s book by JoAnn Deak, called Your Fantastic Elastic Brain that explains this to young kids.  Another book, this one for older kids and young teens, provides information about many aspects of their growing brain.  It’s called The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain by JoAnn and Terrence Deak.
  4. Provide Them with Self-Regulation Strategies.  Self-regulation is an important concept for social and emotional learning.  Among other things, it refers to the ability of children or teens to bounce back from emotional meltdowns they may experience because of stressful encounters.  Rather than responding to emotional and/or social stress by getting angry at another person, or throwing a tantrum, or otherwise engaging in non-productive emotional reactions, the person who possesses self-regulation strategies knows how to recognize when they are stressed, and are armed with a variety of strategies that can bring them back from a condition of upset to one of stable mood and behavior. The first important step in self-regulation is to watch for warning signs of an impending meltdown (e.g. getting hot in the face, breathing rapidly, having a stabbing pain in the stomach, curling one’s fists as if for a fight etc.).  These signs then are interpreted as signals to initiate immediate ”settling down” behaviors.  Some of them might include:  take three deep breaths, visualize a happy scene, tighten your whole body and then relax it, say a phrase to yourself such as ”time to chill out” etc.), but there are scores more (your child may come up with their own unique self-regulation strategies).  Then have your child or teen practice these strategies in real life (e.g. when about to yell at baby sister, after getting an F on a school paper etc.), and talk with him about what worked and what didn’t work, and together you can refine the process to come up with the right ”stress signals” to pay attention to, and the appropriate strategies for dealing with them the next time a stressful event occurs. There’s a neat poster called ”The Zones of Regulation” that helps kids identify how they’re feeling by colors:  blue (hurt, exhausted, bored etc.), green (calm, okay, content), yellow (frustrated, anxious, scared etc.), and red (aggressive, mad, mean).  Under each color, the child writes down some strategies or ”tools” that can help them regulate their feelings, and can then refer to the poster when he or she needs to be reminded of their own personal self-regulation strategies.
  5. Engage Them in Mindfulness Practices.  Mindfulness is simply the process of being fully aware of each present moment in time.  One can begin simply by sitting comfortably in an upright chair with straight posture, placing one’s hands in one’s lap, closing eyes, and then paying attention to the rise and fall of the belly with each breath.  You can follow this sequence:  1. focus on breathing (or walking, eating, or any other specific activity), 2. notice anything that distracts from this focus (e.g. a thought, an emotion, a sensation etc.), 3. notice these distractions with a nonjudgmental and curious attitude,  4. return your attention to the original stimulus (e.g. one’s breathing).  Repeat steps 1-4 as many times as needed.  Sessions can last anywhere from 1 minute to 30 minutes (and even longer for older teens).  Research suggests that mindfulness practice helps children and teens improve attention, attain better self-regulation of emotions (it could be one of the strategies for point 4 above), achieve better academic outcomes, experience less depression and anxiety, and gain a host of other benefits.  I’ve written a book for using mindfulness in schools, entitled:  Mindfulness in the Classroom:  Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm  which can also be used in the home environment.

By using the strategies described in this post, your children or teens can develop a new conception of themselves as learners, one that is more confident, self-assured, self-motivated, and self-aware.  They will be able to handle failure with greater resilience, and show greater persistence in the face of  difficulty in learning something new.  Perhaps most important as far as you’re concerned, they will be less likely to lean on you in a dependent way for help with their schoolwork, less likely to engage in behavioral disruptions during their study sessions, and more willing to engage in independent projects and learning activities.  Ultimately, this new attitude toward learning will grow beyond the school and encompass your child’s newfound willing to embrace life in a novel way.

For more information on empowering your child or teen’s learning ability, engaging their curiosity, stimulating their creativity, and provoking their imaginations, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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