Why I Don’t Punish My Students

PunishmentPosterWriting lines, missing recess, demerits, the Principal’s Office, forced apologies. None of this stuff teaches a kid how to do right. I may be a bit late in writing this. It seems most teachers have come around to this way of thinking already, but just in case a few were missed, I’ll share my thoughts on the topic.

I don’t punish my students.

Punishment is like whacking your car, because it won’t run, or kicking the tire, because it’s flat. It does nothing to solve the problem.

More than that, though, it’s usually an attempt at control after losing one’s self in a sea of frustration.

Here’s what I mean.

You’re with your student(s), it’s been a rotten day, there are thirty things on your to-do list and no time to do them. It’s hot (cold, humid, etc.), you’re tired, and somebody does something just outrageous. I know. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty. Some of the things we say and do in this state, we’d rather forget.

Then there’s the other day. The cold day. The day of righteous indignation. You know the one. You feel like you were calm and cool in meting out just desserts for misbehavior. After all, it’s your duty as their authority figure.

Maybe you went with some kind of level system. Pulling a card, moving down your clothes pin, getting a frowny face on the behavior chart. I’m not saying any of that stuff is inherently bad, but it’s like we think if we conceal our punishing in the clothes of calculated and scientific data analysis it lets us off the hook.

There is another way.

There’s a way to get to the source of the misbehavior. There’s a way you and your student can work together in harmony. There’s a way to prevent problems in the future. It’s gonna take some emotional work, and, most importantly…

You have to see your student as your equal, even though you are his or her leader.

Yes, you have years. Yes, you have experience. Yes, you have training. That doesn’t make you better than your student. You’ve got to listen to him with total faith and confidence that his insights are valuable. It’s like that saying of Goethe’s: “Treat a man as though he is already what he should be, and he will become what he ought to be”. Your student is a future something: a president, a scientist, a parent, doctor, tax attorney, or police officer. Give him or her a chance to be on your team, and win together!

Something we believe in my church is that we lived for time immemorial before we had physical bodies and were born into the world. During that time we did stuff, learned things, and had experiences. The essence of who we were during that time, even though we can’t remember it, is still with us, and comes through in spite of all kinds of adverse conditions: poverty, disability, abuse, addiction, illness, etc.

When I remember that my students (and I) have this glorious background, it’s easier for me to believe in their potential to help solve problems. I can visualize them drawing from that source of power that’s still in them, even though they can’t remember how they got it.

I’m less inclined to find fault with their misbehavior when I think of them as eternal beings of great worth and with a divine mission.

I’m less inclined to have a patronizing attitude toward them, or to dismiss their ideas and feelings.

What I’m saying is that it’s easier for me to have compassion, when I think of my students this way. Then, when it comes time for discipline, I can really hear them when they’re trying to tell me what the problem is, and how to fix it.

Seek to understand, then work together to solve problems.

And, for heaven’s sake, exercise some humility! If you go into the problem-solving situation with discipline as your goal, and you think you have all the answers, your student will write you off as just another adult who thinks kids are a problem to be fixed rather than partners in finding solutions.

Too often, a punishment seeks to stop a behavior in its tracks rather than working out a solution to really prevent it in the future. If that’s really all you want, read no further. If you want more and better for you and your students, read on.

Think of it this way. If your best friend came into your classroom and accidentally knocked over a shelf full of picture books during silent reading time, how would you react?

Now, what if a student did it?

There shouldn’t be a difference in the regard we have for students and other categories of people. They may be young and inexperienced, but they are still people. If you have trouble with that concept, check out this sweet TED Talk on ageism.

Here’s what that problem solving might look like:

Broken iPad:

Me: “I see there’s a broken iPad here.”

Carrie: “Yeah! Natalie pushed me, and my elbow knocked it off the table!”

Me: “I see.”

Carrie(s): “I know I should have pushed it more away from the edge, but I forgot. She pushed me!”

Natalie: “It was an accident!”

Me: “Oh.”

Student(s): “Yeah.”

Me: “This iPad needs to be repaired or replaced.”

Student(s): “We don’t have any money.”

Me: “Hm, we have a problem. iPad repairs cost money, but we don’t have any right now.”

Students come up with shockingly awesome solution.

I’ve dealt with an almost identical situation with real students, and, I kid you not, that’s what happened. They came up with an excellent solution all by themselves. Do you think they were more careful with iPads after the experience?

You bet.

Also, after that, they turned into problem-solving machines. Just pumping out solutions all over the place. A group of kids who could barely stand each other, at first, have become really close and very collaborative.

No punishment necessary.

I could have made them write lines, forced them to apologize to me or each other, or taken away gaming privileges. None of those would’ve taught accountability and problem-solving, though, which is ultimately what we want. That’s the thing about punishment. It always misses the target. If you need proof of that, just check out the recidivism rates in our country’s prisons.

What to do instead.

The real Yodas of the alternative approach are Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, who, you know by now, are my heroes. Also on the list of punishment-alternative experts are Jesus Christ, Viktor Frankl, and this guy, with whom I got to spend a week a few summers ago (he’s hilarious, by the way) during which time he told me about how he forgave the men who cut off his hands during the Rwandan genocide.

I know it’s hard to change, but I promise you this: learning how to problem-solve instead of punish, will only take you a couple of tries before you’re hooked. It helped me to believe again in the power we humans have to create peace together. It starts with baby steps between students and teachers, and can spread to entire nations. Just give it a shot!

Apply these principles:

-Just describe the problem without passing judgment or evaluating (name-calling) the students’ character.

-Reflect, restate, and clarify their position. Student: “I hate you, Mrs. Heaton”! Me: “Oh. I hear you’re not liking me right now”.

-Keep it simple. One- to two-word maximum responses. “Oh.” “I see.” “Mm.”, or just a nod will suffice.

-Solicit suggestions for solutions. “Hm, I’m not sure what to do. We have xyz problem, got any ideas?”

-Accept any and all serious suggestions, then be honest about which ones you can or can’t live with.

A word on the big things.

This post, indeed the blog setting, is probably grossly insufficient to really get to the heart of punishment in the context of really really bad things, i.e. rape, murder, abuse and neglect. If you need more help with that, I highly recommend the book The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. Sometimes, in dire circumstances, a person will hurt others in spite of all attempts to reconcile, and then there’s a way to stop them that won’t cripple you emotionally. More on that in a later post.

For now, I’m anxious to hear how the application of punishment alternatives have worked with your students. Please message me or comment below and let me know how it’s going.


Part 3 of Memorable Teachers Series: Dumbledore

DumbledoreBannerLest I be scorned for what may be a misguided and adolescent love affair with the Harry Potter series, hold up. This is purely academic. I don’t even own any Potter paraphernalia. Okay one poster…and a board game, and I dressed up for the Deathly Hallows premiere with my friend Kristina, but it was more out of intellectual irony (we were college students surrounded by 12-year-olds).

I do maintain, though, that J.K. is a genius. She swept the world with her fantasy creation in a way normally reserved for religious revivals and plagues.

I don’t think it’s because we love Harry, Ron, and Hermione so much, though. We do love them, but that’s not what made the story such a sensation. It’s probably not because we long for a world of adventure and magic, so different from our own. If that were the only reason, the series probably would have been only as successful as other fantasy fiction of the TOR variety.

No. Harry Potter endures, and captures a massive audience, because of its setting.

A school.

The series begins with a heavy emphasis on the young and their high-jinks, but ends having taught us something about life, wisdom, and love from important mentors. I would argue that it’s the relationships between the students and their mentors that brings the richest enjoyment from the series.

Am I going to put it on the level of Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden? Probably not. It’s a different creature. Its seven installments smack of a tendency toward episodic and consumptive preferences. However, if that’s the only way Rowling could get her story out into the world, I’m okay with it. I certainly wasn’t complaining as a 14-year-old in line at Barnes & Noble until 2:00 in the morning waiting for my next copy. Would I put it up there with The Chronicles of Narnia or Sherlock Holmes or P.G. Wodehouse? Yeah, I’ll stick to that.*

Anyway, back to the school thing. Hogwarts seems to be intended as a school experience any of us may have had, you know…minus the magic: bullies, first love, hated subjects, favorite teachers, pranks, homework, acne, growth spurts, moodiness, indignation toward adults, cliques, best friends, and worst enemies. In this everyman’s (sort of) school experience we meet Dumbledore, the Principal we wish we’d had.

I admit it. Dumbledore is one of my all-time favorite teachers, fiction status notwithstanding. He’s so real to me I wonder if J.K. Rowling knew somebody like him on whom she based his character. I bet she did.

This is why I chose him for my roster of memorable teachers:

1) Dumbledore has a sense of humor.

Dumbledore was always getting disapproving glares from other adults because he readily saw to the heart of a humorous situation. I appreciate an adult who, regardless of age, position or status, will still share a laugh with Fred and George. In book four, when the twins cross Dumbledore’s age line receiving long, white beards as their punishment, does Dumbledore get mad?

No way!

Think of the ridiculous consequence he created for breaking the rule by crossing. Growing long white beards?! Hilarious. That’s the mark of a teacher who still appreciates a good joke and wants to help his students remember that while cheating is a serious sin, he loves you still, and thinks of you as worth a second chance.

When I’m subbing is when it’s most difficult to know whether to laugh and or give the stoneface. I confess that fart jokes are still funny to me, but do I lend approval to such behavior by laughing along? Mayhem. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think Dumbledore, with his many years of experience and wisdom, dances along that razor’s edge. I want to be like that someday.

Recently, I subbed a high school graphic design class and heard the telltale sign of work not getting done: internet fart simulation. The trick is to not pass moral judgments on students — dismiss them as clowns, flirts, and airheads — just because they enjoy a good joke. Dumbledore never did that to Fred and George. To whom do you think Fred and George were most loyal and well-behaved?

So, then, what was I to do? Well, I took a marker and wrote on the whiteboard, in curly cursive, the following ditty:

“Your flatulence is funny, but your silence is sweeter.”

After a few titters, the noise returned to a dull roar and there were no more gases passed. Bam!

2) Dumbledore is a Socratic method champ.

He doesn’t just hand out answers to questions like candy (though he does hand out candy). Rather, he takes seriously his part in helping a student build his own problem solving strategies. When Harry wanted to spend his every evening sitting in front of the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore didn’t ban him from the room, or give him detention for sneaking out at night. He also didn’t delve too much into the subject of magical mirrors. Dumbledore was always sort of vague in describing magical things to Harry, and never once helped him cheat.

He had total faith and confidence in Harry’s ability to solve his own problems, and only ever gave gentle nudges and reaffirming assurances. How empowering for a student. How satisfying for a teacher. I love it when a student makes that leap of thought to the answer all on his or her own. That’s the icing on the pumpkin pasty.

I mentor a young woman, we’ll call her ‘C’, and we conduct our sessions through snowboarding. Last Wednesday she had a breakthrough and was able to make smooth transitions from heel side to toe side. As the day wore on she became progressively more graceful at it. I can’t take credit for her newfound ability, because it was in her all along. When she asked for guidance on how to improve, I only gave a minimum of advice. My job was just to still be her friend after she fell the first few 100 times.

With snowboarding, as in many other things, no one can do the work for you. You can know all the tips and tricks, but eventually you just have to put in what my husband calls “hours behind the wheel”.

I’ll still be there for her with a tip here and there.

The thing is, though, snowboarding isn’t really what I want her to know. If she becomes a pro at it, awesome, but my main concern is that she learns how to stick out the tedium of the process in order to reach the fruit of mastery. I live for the day when she’s the one waiting for me at the bottom of the lift; when she pays it forward and teaches someone else how to do it.

3) Dumbledore believes in repentance.

Snape, Mundungus Fletcher, Regulus, Ron. All examples of individuals in whom Dumbledore had faith. He knew they were basically good. He knew they were capable of making the right choice, even after making so many wrong choices.

Dumbledore never grew to hate or despise any of the people who messed up. He always retained a love for them that didn’t hinge on whether they made mistakes.

It can be hard not to take an affront personally, especially from your student. In book six, when Draco was faced with the choice to kill Dumbledore, or be killed, Dumbledore manages to find compassion instead of offense. He was sorry for Draco, not angry at him. He knew how quickly things escalated out of hand in Draco’s life. He still had hope for Draco, and rightly believed in Draco’s desire to make the right choice. He was sincere in his welcoming back of this very distressed youth. That blows my mind!

Now, the word count of this post is telling me that I’ve waxed loquacious yet again. So, let’s recap and wrap it up.

Dumbledore had a sense of humor, believed his students were smart, and that they could makes things right again after screwing up. He’s a memorable teacher to me. I wish all teachers were like Dumbledore, myself included. And by that, of course, I mean all teachers should wear flowing purple robes with spangles on them, and a pair of half-moon spectacles:)

What do you think of Dumbledore as a teacher? Don’t be shy. Maybe you think he was too irreverent, or frustratingly vague. This is a safe place to let your nerd/anti-nerd out.

*It’s most often compared to the works of Roald Dahl.


Why Dyslexia scared me, and how I got over my fear.

A while back, a dear friend of mine said “Hey! You’re a tutor. I know a gal who runs a business tutoring dyslexic kids. That would be right up your alley.”

My immediate reaction was surprise. Not only do I have no special education experience, but I’d only been tutoring for three months. How was I supposed to help a kid with Dyslexia?

Then, my follow-up reaction was fear.

What I knew of dyslexia was a murky mix of hearsay and anecdotes about brilliant college dropouts. I’d known people throughout my life who had trouble reading, but being an excellent and intuitive reader myself, I found their struggle incomprehensible. I figured, if you put in the practice, you’d become a good reader, no problem.

In other words, I basically didn’t know anything about Dyslexia. At all.

Part of me didn’t want to know. I was between a fear of the unknown and afraid that once I did know, I’d be powerless to do anything about it.

Well, the financial beast reared its head, and I needed more income. So, I took a leap of faith and applied for the job. My fears were almost immediately laid to rest. I was given a very broad but satisfying training and receive lots of ongoing support.

I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned and explain how it’s dispelled my fears.

1) People with Dyslexia CAN and DO learn to read…eventually.

One way or another most dyslexic people will receive remediation or they’ll remediate themselves. That is to say, they will find ways to read when they absolutely have to, and can become highly accurate, if slow, readers. I’ve talked to many dyslexic men and women who came up with all kinds of coping strategies, such as: counting the number of people ahead of them in the class reading group then counting down to the paragraph he/she is expected to read and prereading it several times before it gets to his/her turn. Others listened to audiobooks while reading along, memorizing a very specific vocabulary, such as for their particular job or interest. I know one dyslexic, in particular, who has trouble pronouncing and remembering the simplest of street names, but knows the names of hundreds of car parts, makes, models, and years.

It can be a long, hard slog, but it reading can happen for people who have it. I see it happening before my very eyes with my students. It’s incredible.

2) Dyslexia is a thing.

It’s not laziness and it’s not lack of motivation or effort. Dyslexia arises from a difference in brain wiring that disrupts the gradual processing of words from manual decoding to automatic recognition. For them, without specialized training, the process never becomes automatic. Awesome! I can totally let go of all that anger and frustration I had toward kids who didn’t understand after I’d tried so hard to teach them. It wasn’t because they were spiting me. It was because I wasn’t teaching them in the way that they learn. Guess what? I can change the way I teach:) That means there’s hope!

3) You don’t have to lower the standard for a person who has Dyslexia.

Based on my denial of No. 2 above, I figured people with Dyslexia were really just lazy and didn’t want to put in the effort to learn. They just wanted a pass for underachieving. Do I sound like a bigoted jerk yet? Trust me. I’m repenting. The total opposite is true. People with Dyslexia often have high IQs, and represent some of the hardest-working people I know. They offer a vital contribution to any kind of big picture problem. The people I know who have Dyslexia are invariably quick to the solution of complex problems involving many players. It might just be me, but I also kinda think they’re more fun to be around. I think I’ll do an informal study on that at some point.

4) The real mark of education and success is how well you live in the world and make it a better place.

That typically has absolutely nothing to do with how well you read and write. In other words, I don’t feel hopeless anymore about how many people have Dyslexia — estimates place the number at 1-in-5 Americans. There are people with Dyslexia in every field of work, and, just like the rest of us, their performance is all over the spectrum. Maybe they don’t read well or fluently, but I bet a lot of the rest of us get so stuck in the details of a problem that we never get to a solution. If you think about it, that’s a kind of disability, too. I’m relieved and glad that there are so many people out there who are naturally excellent problem solvers. When they build on that talent, boy do they achieve wonders.

5) Dyslexia is a bonified disability, though.

By that I mean that it can profoundly disrupt normal, everyday existence. Consider this. You wake up tomorrow morning and inexplicably cannot quickly decode words any longer. Reading the instructions on the back of the prescription bottle is suddenly a gargantuan task. So many medical terms! The waitress at your favorite restaurant hands you a menu and the letters may as well be swimming across the page, so you just say “I’ll have what he’s having.” even though  you hate what he’s having! Better a gross burger than the embarrassment of taking all day to read the menu. You get to work and have to face the Internet. Oh, the Internet. If not for YouTube it may as well be a useless rabbit warren of text starting with the keyboard. Need to turn in a resume? Nightmare. You can never be quite sure if you got all the spellings right. Don’t even get me started on punctuation. I hope the boss can see through it to my sparkling personality and high skills. College entrance exams are the worst. They’re timed. Yeah. Disability. Here, I just want to make it clear that, in a literate society (which we have), people with Dyslexia are entitled to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

6) Dyslexia isn’t a childhood problem that you grow out of.

IMG_1197Dyslexia ranges from mild to profound, but if you have it, you have it for life. Like I said earlier, many adults with Dyslexia have found ways to remediate themselves, and can become highly accurate readers. The problem is, they usually remain slow readers, and take twice as long, if not longer, to read as other adults. That means for every hour you spend at your job reading, your dyslexic counterpart spends two. Over a lifetime, that’s a lot of lost time. Beyond that, Dyslexia isn’t who you are. It’s just something that you have. It’s not a disease, but it is highly heritable. A person with Dyslexia has a high probability of passing it on to his or her children. So, does that mean people with Dyslexia shouldn’t have kids? I surely hope no dyslexic person ever thinks that or has it preached to him. My students have such full, amazing lives, Dyslexia notwithstanding. I know terrific parents who have Dyslexia. Their kids are lucky to have them.

I’ll add more posts on this later. For now, though, I’ll just put it out there that learning about Dyslexia humbled me deeply. I had a lot of erroneous notions about how learning works, when it happens, and for whom. Some of those I held long and passionately. That was part of my fear, letting go. The funny thing is, I feel very free as I’ve let those notions go. I feel a deep compassion for the kids I tutor, and for the adults that have always been around me without my knowledge. Dyslexia has made their lives really really hard, though they’d never admit it because they’re usually hard-working and humble. I have so much admiration and respect for them, because they do what the rest of us do, except it’s so much more difficult for them. In fact, I have been gently mentored and provided so much warmth and love during my tough times by people with Dyslexia I feel like I just need to shut up and quit complaining about the little things that bug me in life. I should be the one offering them solace given how difficult “simple” tasks are for them. It must be a dyslexic thing. Maybe they just understand pain better than other people because they’re so closely-acquainted with it from being unable to read well in our literate society. It seems to make them especially good at recognizing pain in others and offering the balm of friendship and support. Maybe I’m going too far now and applying labels too generally, but my experience really has been that people with Dyslexia tend to be very warm and caring. They’re emotionally literate.



When the Work Is Hard: How to Turn a Frustrated Student into a Hard-working Hero


In an earlier post, I outlined my mission as a mentor. Part of it is to speak to the hero in my students.

This is how that looks in real life.

I’ll apply it to something kids say that makes teachers’ skin crawl: “This is too hard!”

My tired responses to this used to be to deny it: “No, it’s not.”, or “You just think it’s hard because you’ve never done it before. Really, though, it’s the simplest thing in the world”.

Both responses are problematic. Each is demeaning and implies the child is a liar or stupid. “But what else can I say?! If I admit that it’s hard then I’ve failed as a teacher!”, “I was supposed to make this plain and simple, but he’s still not getting it!”, “Kids are really suggestible. Isn’t it unethical to put the idea that something is hard into their heads?”

I know what you’re thinking, but let me show you a scenario that I deal with all the time, and then we’ll plumb the depths of your concerns.

Child: “This is too hard! I will never get this!”

Me: “Yeah, this is tough. You’re really close. Maybe you want to try again?”

Child: “Ugh! Okay. puh-luh-an. Plan! I did it!”

Me: “You did it! Even though it was hard, you did it!”

Sound like wishful thinking? I do this DAILY with my students, many of whom have disabilities. I get results. This, my friends, is speaking to the hero in a child.

The child who is spoken to as if he/she were Peter Parker or Harry Potter or Lucy Pevensie begins to build up a bank account of memories in which he or she did something really difficult in spite of the challenges. These memories come in handy when the child again faces the grindstone, academic or otherwise. It also makes it easier for the child to be forgiving of him or herself when the results of his efforts are less than perfect. Given his record of success, the present setback is probably temporary.

Now, let’s unpack an uncomfortable internal experience we have, as teachers, when a kid thinks something is hard.

1) We’re afraid that we’ve failed.

We give credence to that dirty liar inside of us that tells us we’re not good enough.

It’s okay to let the experience of the child make you question your approach to teaching. Sincere pondering over how to improve preserves your integrity for the parts of the teaching relationship you are accountable for. This is not a pass for using methods, styles, or programs that are found to be ineffective. 

BUT! Mentorship is not just about making things easy.

When we internalize their frustration as our failure, we eventually seek relief from our sense of failure by placing it back on the child. That’s how the demeaning rebuttals seep into the dialogue with our students. We have to deny that the work is hard in order to preserve our desperate need to be right about our own goodness/rightness. If the kid is right and the work is hard then we’re a waste of space. Or so we let ourselves think. More on that in an upcoming post.

This is where speaking to the hero in the child is so helpful. Your student is incredibly sensitive to whether or not you believe he is essentially good and capable, and he can tell when you have total compassion for him. You demonstrate this compassion by, first, listening to what he or she is saying, and then acknowledging that, to him or her, the difficulty is real.

Let your students know they can try again, as many times as they need. Relax, let them know there’s no rush.

This concept of making hard work acceptable matters, because, try as we might, we will never be perfect teachers. There’s no perfect curriculum, or time of day, or perfect kid, or style with which to teach. I don’t care who you are: Waldorf, Montessori, Public, Private, Charter, Challenger, homeschool, unschool, whatever. All have strengths and weaknesses. The most transferable and empowering thing you can do is to really listen when the kid says the work is hard. Let her know it’s okay for it to be hard. Give it a shot anyway! Amaze yourself!

In essence, you practice what you preach by showing up as a teacher, acknowledging that you won’t be able to make everything easy for everyone, but trying really hard anyway. Model this grace for yourself, and your students will learn to have grace for themselves, too.

2) We’re afraid that we’re committing the unpardonable sin of suggestion.

Remember the child psychologist from Law & Order? He was always warning the detectives against abusing the highly-suggestible child. He’s right, of course. You should never ask leading questions of a vulnerable person, or fill someone’s mouth with words.

We are deathly afraid of the “h” word (hard), and avoid saying it for fear of giving validation or justification for quitting. We want our students to love math and to love reading and to love history. “Won’t saying it’s hard make it hard”?


But there is a very subtle and massively important difference between suggestion and reflection. If you March into the room and declare that what we’re learning today is hard, you may unfairly prejudice your students against the task. However, patiently working with a child and echoing her feelings when she expresses that something is difficult for her, helps her process from frustration to understanding rather than halting at the emotional push back from a teacher who just says “No.It’s not hard.”

Now, let’s recap what acknowledging the difficulty of a task IS and IS NOT.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS NOT:

1) An excuse for the child to quit:

On the contrary, acknowledging that something is difficult for a student is simply accepting the reality of the situation for that child. It does NOT mean they give up. If necessary, be explicit in your expectation that hard things be done in spite of their difficulty. In most cases, they will take your belief in them as implicit. You didn’t deny their sense that the work is hard and you show confidence in their ability to do the hard thing. Of course they’ll keep trying when you show so much faith in them!

2) Proof you are a bad teacher:

I’m pretty sure Jesus is still a good teacher even though Peter messed up. He figured it out eventually, and he loved Jesus for continuing to work with him even after he made a mistake.

3) Approval of whining and bad behavior:

If your student is cussing, hurting someone, destroying property, or being generally unpleasant, your acknowledgment of the difficulty of the task is not approval of this mayhem. Be firm in stating your boundaries in regard to how frustration over a difficult task is expressed, but DO NOT demean or punish for having frustration.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS:

1) A gateway to problem solving:

Your acknowledgement of the difficulty of the task leaves room for the child to tell you why it’s difficult. This is a boon to the teacher! Instant feedback on how we can improve! Denying the difficulty, on the other hand, shuts the child down. This creates distrust and no real solutions come out of distrust.

2) An invitation to reflection:

Ask yourself, “What can I do to ease some of the burden, but keep my and my student’s integrity intact?”, “Is this task worthy of the effort I’m asking of my student/expecting my student to ask of himself? If not, what can I replace it with that will be more valuable and meaningful to him?”

3) An opportunity to grow:

Acknowledging that something is hard to do, makes the completion of that thing all the sweeter. You get to be the lucky person in the child’s life that teaches him or her the awesome experience it is to finish something that wasn’t easy.

4) A strategy for dealing with frustration:

Think of how you feel when you’re frustrated by something. Wouldn’t you appreciate it if someone would just commiserate without judgment until the frustration peters out? By acknowledging, without judgment of his character, that something is difficult for your student, you help him build a little homunculus for himself. This guy is his cheerleader, his commiserator, the guy that says “I hear you, man. I have total faith in you”. It’s like, now that we’ve established that the task is hard, we can move on to seeking a solution. That’s a good strategy.

A note on disabilities:

Though I am currently developing programs for unimpaired students, my main gig is working with children who have disabilities.

I have a number of relatives with varying disabilities from mental illness to loss of limbs. I am closely acquainted with the pain these disabilities can cause as well as the pain caused by others who simply don’t understand, saying things like “Snap out of it!”, 0r “Just try harder”! That’s why I mentioned compassion earlier.

Not pity.

Not callousness either.

Compassion. Let your compassion inspire you to educate yourself about the nature of your student’s disability, and remember that while she has a disability, she’s also a person. One way you help your student and yourself remember this important fact, is by speaking to her as if she is as important as you are, as if her experience is just as real and valid as yours, and that it’s okay for things to be hard. Continue to have faith and confidence in her Abilities while keeping tabs on the difficulties presented by her disabilities. Remember, a child with a disability can do hard things, too.