“You should know that I’m no good at school.”
I teach third grade and at the beginning of each year I ask the students to write down something I should know about them. I want to know what’s going on in their lives, what they are excited about, who their family is.
“I love to play with Legos.”
“My mom is going to have a baby girl in December.”
“I am on the soccer team.”
“My favorite subject is science.”
But, last year, Karen told me that she wasn’t good at school…the absolute worst thing a teacher can read his first week of a new school year (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating…there could be worse, but this was pretty bad). Why? Because Karen was telling me right off the bat that she had no confidence in herself when it came to anything we’d be doing our seven hours a day for the next 180 days.
When a child has no confidence in herself, she’s not going to work. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you truly don’t believe that you are capable, why expend the time and energy to attempt what your mind is telling you is impossible?
I love basketball, been playing regularly for over 35 years. If a coach told me they were going to train me to slam dunk on a fifteen foot hoop (regulation hoops are only ten feet tall), I wouldn’t push myself to work hard because I know it’s impossible. No one has ever slammed on a hoop that high. So, why would I exert myself to attempt the impossible?
That’s what many of us parents go through when we have to contend with a child who just doesn’t think he is capable: of learning his time-tables, of reading an entire book, of passing the history test, of writing an essay.
We say, “Just work harder, longer, focus, slow-down,” yet they still don’t have faith in themselves. Why? Because they lack confidence, like my student, Karen. Why should they work harder, longer, slow-down or focus when they know it’s not possible? It’s their fifteen-foot hoop, the unattainable.
So, what can we do to pull our children out of their academic funk, and find a way to get their confidence back? The answer is to find them successes…somewhere, anywhere, and ride that wave to school success.
The best way to help our children find their successes is to help them identify their passions and strengths. What is it that they love to do? What drives them? What do they get out of bed for? These are their passions.
What do they excel at? What do their friends tell them, “I wish I could do that as well as you”? What areas do their teachers spotlight as ones they can do well? These are their strengths.
My job as Karen’s teacher was to build her confidence at any opportunity that I could. When she made progress, when she worked hard, I always called her on it: “You are so focused on that,” “Every week you are improving in this area.”
And, when we identify our own children’s passions and strengths, we need to give them opportunities to explore them. Your kid loves soccer? Get her on a team. He is drawn to animals? Have him volunteer at an animal shelter. Business is something she’s interested in? Teach her how to set up a lemonade stand or a jewelry-making business.
Whatever your child is excited about, there is probably a club, a group, an app, YouTube videos, or books to allow her to explore deeper. Our job as parents is to keep them excited about what they are already excited about and lead them to feel confident in that area, because once they do, they feel confidence in themselves as a person.
I found that Karen was a pretty good writer. She was a natural. So, I gave her special attention in this area. And, when we had our business letter assignment, where each student chooses a business to write to in order to express their thoughts about great customer service or a wonderful product, Karen was excited.
She wrote to Tilly’s, a clothing store that sells Penny Boards, which are little hundred-dollar skateboards. Karen’s friend had one, and she wrote to the company to telling them why she loved riding her friend’s board.
A couple of months later, a box came in the mail for Karen. In it was a thank you letter from Tilly’s telling her how they loved her letter and that they wanted to thank her and her fellow classmates. Under the letter was a class supply of Tilly’s sunglasses. Karen’s classmates were thrilled with their new eye wear, and Karen was glowing, because it was all due to her writing.
There was also another box. In it was a Penny Board for Karen as a thank you from the company. The girl’s smile stretched from one ear to Albuquerque. Her confidence levels rose immensely. I could almost see the dopamine and endorphins, the part of the brain chemistry that rewards us for success, practically shooting out of her ears. She began to see that she wasn’t bad at school, that she had potential and was capable. The rest of the year, she just continued to improve.
I saw Karen and her father a year later, a month before she graduated fourth grade. I asked how she was doing that year. Without hesitation, they both announced she was doing great. I asked if she remembered writing to me that she wasn’t good at school that first week of third grade. Coyly, she looked away with a slight shy smile and said, “Yes, I remember… but I was wrong.”
As parents, let’s find our children’s strengths and passions. We need to give them opportunities to find confidence in themselves. And, once they do, they will take on those areas in school that were once their fifteen–foot hoops, and realize that they weren’t as unattainable as they once thought. They’ll start making progress in school, a slam-dunk for everyone!
About Leon Scott Baxter
Leon Scott Baxter, "The Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet," has been an elementary educator for the last eighteen years. He's the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting, which helps parents raise happy and successful children. Learn more about raising happy successful children at SafetyNetters.com or on Baxter's YouTube Channel.