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By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
I especially want to address the issue of "giving in." If an intervention to motivate students with learning problems is not working, then it is our responsibility to develop and implement more effective strategies. Last year when I was giving a workshop in Texas, one of the participants laughingly said, "We have an expression for that in Texas. If the horse is dead, get off." While many may agree with this expression, I continue to attend meetings in schools or clinics in which I hear, "We have been doing this for six months and the child is still not responding. He (or she) is resistant and oppositional."
I believe in perseverance, but if we have used an intervention for six months with no positive results, I often wonder, "Who are the resistant ones in this scenario?" When asked if youngsters will fail to learn responsibility if adults make the first changes, I answer, "That will only occur if the goals of our changes are not to promote ownership and cooperation in youth."
Returning to the theme of empathy, I believe empathic adults should always ask two questions when raising or working with children with learning and attention difficulties. They are:
As an illustration, many parents and teachers may exhort children with learning problems to "try harder." Their goal is to motivate these children. However, the comment "try harder" is typically experienced as judgmental and accusatory, often prompting greater anger and less cooperation on the part of the students.
As an alternative, I recommend adults change their script and not utter a comment one can predict in advance which has a high likelihood of being perceived as accusatory. Instead, I suggest adults say to children with learning difficulties that the problem is not they are not trying, but rather the strategies they are using to learn, or the strategies the teachers are using to instruct them, are not proving effective. Although it may seem like a small difference, casting a problem in terms of an ineffective strategy removes the judgmental quality of saying, "Try harder."
Teachers have told me this modification has led to a more cooperative relationship with students in seeking more productive strategies. Collaborating with students in this way also increases a feeling of ownership which, as attribution theory has shown, is one of the hallmarks of increased self-esteem and confidence, as well as one of the main characteristics of a resilient mindset.
Strategies to foster self-esteem, motivation, and resilience in children with learning problems will have a greater probability of success if we change any of our own ineffective scripts. Following are some steps to modify negative scripts that Dr. Sam Goldstein and I describe in our book Raising Resilient Children. I hope they will serve as guidelines as you attempt to modify those scripts that have proved unsuccessful in your relationship with your child, student, or client.
Remember that constructive changes you make will encourage children to make positive changes as well. I am reminded of a school social worker who enlisted five students with behavior and attendance problems to join her on a committee that examined why children do not want to go to school. They developed a questionnaire to answer this question, and their presence on this committee served to decrease their behavior and increase their attendance. This was a far better script than constantly punishing these students.
Obviously, this is a very important step but one must be careful not to immediately place the blame for the lack of success on the children by saying they are resistant and unmotivated. Instead, parents and teachers must assume an empathic stance by seeing the world through the eyes of the children. In the example noted above involving "Try harder," a parent might wonder, "If I were having difficulty with a task at work, how would I like it if my boss said, 'You could do it if you wanted to, just try harder!'?"
Once you accept responsibility to make changes and gain an understanding of why previous solutions have been ineffective, you can consider adopting new solutions and scripts. One teacher recognized she was being very critical and punitive with a fifth grade girl with learning problems who often used quitting as a way of coping with the demands of school. We discussed how opportunities had not been created for this girl to display her "islands of competence," which were her artwork and her ability to relate positively with younger children. When her teacher arranged for some of her drawings to be hung in the school lobby and for the girl to read to a couple of kindergarten children on a weekly basis, her work improved and she was able to give up her reliance on quitting.
I know parents and teachers who have changed their scripts, but unfortunately their efforts did not result in a change of scripts in the children in their lives. When this occurs, adults often feel children are taking advantage of them and are not willing to accept responsibility for their own behavior. However, I have learned that while a proposed strategy may seem flawless in my office, it may not be effective in the "real" world. It is for this reason that whenever I develop an intervention with a parent or teacher, I always raise the question, "What if it doesn't work?" I am not doing this to engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. Rather, I am asking about back-up plans. Just as we want our children not to be discouraged by their mistakes but to think of alternative solutions, so too we must believe we can learn from our failures.
If we subscribe to the belief that our mindset and subsequent actions can lead to positive changes in our children, then we will be better equipped to implement strategies in our classrooms and homes to foster self-esteem, hope, and resilience in children with learning problems. My next article will focus on such strategies in the home environment, while my final article will describe strategies that can be used in our schools.
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