I was once asked to tutor a ten year-old who didn’t want any help.  (This has happened lots of times; I say “once” because this story is about one particular child.)  He was a relatively good sport about it, because he’s a relatively compliant kid.  He was not about to refuse to meet with me, and he was not about to be rude to me.  But it’s hard for anyone in a situation like his to go without an outlet for resistance.  So this is what he’d do.  When it came time to write anything down on a homework assignment he’d write with one hand but not steady the paper with the other.  The result was nearly illegible numbers and symbols.  Just generally a big mess.

I’ve seen enough children doing this to discern with some accuracy when it’s the result of a lack of understanding of the physics involved in the act of writing (which it really sometimes is) and when it’s a communication.  This was a communication.

I could have told him to hold the paper still, and he probably would have obliged (being relatively compliant). But then he would have found some other way to let me know he wasn’t happy with the circumstances.  Instead I asked him if sometimes he holds the paper still when he’s writing on it.  He didn’t respond right away.  “What d’you mean?” he said (with what sounded to me like caution).  I said, “I mean, I’m pretty sure you know that when you’re writing, and you hang on to the paper with your other hand or steady it with your wrist, what you write will be easier to read.  So it seems like maybe you don’t feel like it right now, or something.”

He didn’t say much then, and we moved on. But the next time it happened, when he realized he was doing it, he looked up at me and I raised a dramatic eyebrow.  He covered his eyes for a moment, scrunching up his face, and laughed. It became a bit of a running joke between us.

My approach didn’t change the fact that this child didn’t really want to be there with me working on math, but it set a tone that allowed us to talk about it, person-to-person.  And that meant we could also talk about the various challenges and resistances that led his teachers and parents to send him to me in the first place.

This is one of those things that can seem simple but not actually be easy.  It’s often not easy to figure out how to acknowledge out loud that a child’s will is involved in a behavior, with curiosity about the behavior and without immediately attributing the expression of that will to laziness or obstinacy. But it’s possible.  And it’s worth it.  When we find ways to access and express genuine curiosity about why kids are doing what they’re doing, we make room for a human connection that transcends the common adult/child dynamic – the one in which an adult gives a directive of one kind or another and the child is limited to a choice between compliance and defiance. Breaking the cycle of that dynamic tends to allow for much more productive and peaceful conversations.

And it’s also just plain more fun and less exhausting for everyone.

Lighten the mood

A few years ago, I took over teaching a fourth grade class in the middle of the school year.  The teacher who’d had the class for the first four months of the year seemed to have been quite serious, quite organized, and quite, according to my students, strict.  Fortunately for them, they were quick to adjust to the somewhat different experience of the subsequent five months.

I was worried.  Mostly about being organized enough, but also about being serious enough.  These children were used to buckling down, to marching through their days according to regimen and getting a lot done.  After a few days, I realized that they had grown used to churning out paperwork and toeing the proverbial line, but they weren’t remembering much of what they were “learning.” There was a whole lot of compliance going on, which is what you’re supposed to want in a classful of students, but we weren’t getting results.

One day we sat down for our morning meeting (I had moved it from the grid of desks to the floor, where it was easier for me to see them all at the same time) and I noticed that I had two different socks on.  I glanced quickly around to see if I’d been the first to notice, and was met with sly smiles from two of the quieter students.  I knew my secret was safe with them, and for a moment I considered folding my ankles under me and keeping it between us.  But then I changed my mind.  I’d like to think I did it on purpose, because I’m clever, but I didn’t.  I have a little bit of a silly streak, and it likes to express itself.  Also, I was getting a little exhausted by the somber atmosphere of the classroom.  I stretched my legs out in front of me and waited.

“Um, Miss…” One of the not-so-quiet students had his hand up and was rooting around in his memory for my name.  He couldn’t wait to find it.  “I think something’s wrong with your socks.” I laughed.  The rest of the students looked uncertainly around.  “Well I should say so,” I exclaimed.  “What did I, choose my socks in the dark?”  Slowly the room came a little bit to life.  Th kids looked at each other with raised eyebrows and their hands started popping up as they got confident enough to ask questions. “Did you do that by accident?” one of them asked incredulously.  (Teachers, elementary school teachers in particular, have a reputation for being immaculate.  Unlikely to do such without a reason.)  “I wish I didn’t,” I confessed.  “Sometimes I get distracted.  You know what my grandfather would say in this situation?  He’d say the socks are perfectly matched; he has a pair just like them at home.”

This morning meeting was the beginning of a thaw that continued until the end of the year. My students had loved their other teacher, but they’d been frozen in the serious business of fourth grade, plugging along doing as they were told and promptly forgetting most of it.  As they relaxed into the culture of occasional silliness and humor launched that morning by my socks, they got interested in things, and they started to notice each other, and they started to explore things, books, notions, that they hadn’t before.  It wasn’t because I was teaching brilliantly.  It was because we were laughing together.

In my work now, with children facing various learning challenges, the most profound growth and development appears to come similarly.  When the tone of a conversation, a work session, an explanation, is one of light good-naturedness along with an understanding that humor might slip its way in at any moment, children tend to relax and become available for learning.  Not the kind of learning we sometimes wish they were available for – not a checklist of unconsidered tasks and facts.  Rather the kind of learning they know they can use, but have found elusive.  (The child who desperately wants to be able to read, for example, but struggles to remember which sounds are which, which rules apply when, etc.)

If you know such a child, and nothing has worked, try lightening the mood.  Laugh at yourself, choose something silly to read, make a face.  You may be surprised how effective you can be at unhitching a stuck brain, just by tapping your own stores of lightness.  Not to mention how much more fun it’ll be for you.

Really little steps

So let’s say a kid wants to learn something big.  And by big, I mean something that could take a long time to master – something like speaking a language fluently, playing the piano, having a book published, competing in the Olympics, reading Harry Potter.  An accomplishment that will mean a high degree of mastery in a particular area when reached, but first, things that might feel like chore, drudgery, work.  It’s easy to think, when kids resist the early steps and phases of acquiring a skill, that they don’t actually want it that much.  If they did, wouldn’t they be willing to do the work?  Show up for the unpleasant parts?  Too often as adults we default to one of two things.  We give up, because we decide it wasn’t that important to them in the first place.  Or we just insist on practice, because we know they really want the possible result and the only way we see to get them there is to force it, to override the resistance.

Yikes.  Sometimes it’s OK, and whatever  default option we choose ends up seeming as though it was for the best.  But often it doesn’t, and everyone gets frustrated and cranky and disappointed.

When we decide to force it, it’s often in increments of half an hour.  If you’re going to insist on piano practicing, it’s for half an hour.  Getting better at reading?  Half an hour at a time.  Learning to rollerblade?  Half an hour.  And again, sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t, consider that a half an hour can seem like a very long time.  Instead, consider suggesting very very tiny amounts of time, amounts that seem so ridiculously small they can’t possibly make any difference.  Amounts so small that they feel manageable, even laughable, to whoever’s trying to master the thing.  You can try it out on yourself first to see it in action.  It will likely make you laugh, it’s so silly.  Plan on doing something for 2.5 minutes.  Do it for a few days, and see if you get anything done.  And see if you get more done than you were getting done when you were insisting on hours at a time from yourself.  See how your resistance compares.

Then invite your kids to try it with whatever’s looming too large.  No amount of time is too small to start with.  (It’s always possible to add time, but once something gets swallowed up by resistance and struggle, it’s hard to restore the inspiration for it.) And it’s OK to worry that they won’t ever master it this way, but if you’ve read this far, you know that’s very possible with the alternative too, so it’s worth a try.  And further, it’s very likely that if it’s something they actually want to master, they will end up doing more than the little amount they’ve promised, once it doesn’t feel too overwhelming anymore. (It’s worth mentioning that if they don’t really want to master the thing, none of this is likely to do anything but allow them to do it as little as possible, which might not be the worst thing to find out.)  Even if they do stick with two and a quarter minutes for weeks, they’re likely to decide to increase it.  Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, kids really do want to get better at things.  They want to be more and more like adults, including in the realm of mastery and self-direction and self-regulation.  This approach gives them the chance to dabble in those.

But mostly, it’ll make it possible for them to take something on that’s big, in a way that doesn’t feel too big.

* I think it was because of one of Martha Beck’s books that I started using the practice, and inviting kids and parents to try it too. In order to include a link to her work here, I visited her blog and found that she just happens to have posted about what she calls turtle steps the other day. With a rather delightful turtle image, too.*