It's Because You CAN

Helping students internalize the right message about their capability is key to challenging them

My 10-year-old stepson is a climber.

He is also a violinist. His long fingers, when they aren't in motion on the violin, are seeking every handhold, shelf, door-frame, and protruding object off of which to hang.

Recently I took him to an indoor climbing gym. I watched as he tried to navigate the complex holds, marked off with brightly colored swatches of tape. He shifted back and forth, made it about two-thirds the way up, then jumped off. "Why did you quit?" I asked. "Too hard," he declared.

Then came the ex-Marine.

A coach at the gym who I'll call "Josh" happened to be watching, and we found out Josh used to be a Marine. Josh volunteered some teaching time to us for free. Suddenly my stepson was expected to try harder, and he did. 

Josh put his hands on my son's back, literally pushing up, up, up through the first few handholds. "Get it, get it!" Josh would yell as my son hesitated near the top. "You can do it, come on!" Josh used just the right combination of verbal and physical cheerleading to drive him past what he thought he could do. 

And it wasn't all positive. "Your footwork is terrible," Josh said, "and you need to work on your route management and pacing."

Josh pushed my kid in ways I could never push him, because a) he had expertise in the field of climbing and could see what to do next, and b) he recognized that my son could do more, and was willing to expend energy on getting that extra effort to come out.

The best time to push students is when they are developmentally ready, AND we are in the right role to do the pushing. 

I often stop in the middle of a difficult set of instructions or practice and say, "You know why we are doing this? Because I know you are able to. Take it as a compliment. I wouldn't give this to you if I didn't think you were ready."

Just as Josh saw that my son was ready to be pushed, when we see students in that moment, we need to take up our role as teachers and do the pushing. But we also need to help them understand why we are pushing.

We can help them internalize the right message: you are ahead, not behind. You are capable, not incapable. 

Of course, we also need to be aware of when we are giving students too much to do, or something that is over their heads, or beyond their maturity level to handle. Quietly retracting a poor choice of exercise for a student who isn't ready is wise, and ensures continued progress.

You can give me more than that

When we know they are ready, being assertive is the best course of action. I recently turned the screws on a 13-year-old and 17-year-old student who were being lazy about practicing. "You are capable of much more than you are giving me!" I said. "If you think you don't have time to practice, you are lying to yourself. I know you can do this."

For a 3-year-old, a much simpler and gentler message is simple to say "I know you can do this, but maybe we'll try again later." Don't push in the moment, but come back to it.

Let them do it wrong

Often when a student is resisting me, I just let them do it wrong. After some time passes, they usually forget what it was they were resisting. Then they start to self-correct.

That's really hard to do in the moment, because we want to guide them. But speaking as a parent and a teacher, I know that the times I push against resistance are the times that I have failed to get through. The times I back off and let them know I'm not fighting them, have been the times that it all seems to dissolve on its own.

We need to let them know they CAN. Because they need to know. They look to us as adults and teachers and parents to look them in the eye, and tell them the truth, and give them that inner push that allows them to say "I know I am capable." Even if it means letting them do it wrong in the moment, we can tell them that we know they can do it differently.

That plants a seed, affirms that a good quality is inside of them, and tells them that are growing into a better person.