Anything easily attained is cheaply held. – Debbie Silver
One of the most compelling motivators for students is when they work hard towards a goal and achieve it through their focused efforts and conscious choices. If there is an attentive adult present to give appropriate feedback, the experience can be even more validating. Student engagement relies on several internal factors that can be taught and strengthened in learners. These capacities are part of what we refer to as Thrive skills: essential competencies beyond academic aptitude that influence student success.
Consistent with the thinking of Lev Vygotsky, teachers need to gauge the level of the student’s ability to work unaided (to set a baseline) and then scaffold learning experiences to foster their emerging capabilities. Today’s terminology refers to this progression as incrementally “raising the bar.” To ensure student buy-in to this process, certain Thrive skills need to be in place. Student agency, perseverance, and resilience are key to maintaining student engagement.
Building student agency
Self-efficacy beliefs provide the basis for human motivation because unless students believe they can affect changes in their circumstances and in their lives, they have little incentive to act or to persevere through difficult situations.
Fostering growth mindsets about the benefits of trying hard, bouncing back from setbacks, and valuing incremental progress boosts both motivation and engagement. Teachers need to exhibit and model the advantages of centering on self-improvement rather than focusing on what others do.
How to support student agency in the classroom:
- Help students “own” their progress. Emphasize that success or lack of it has more to do with internal forces (effort, choices) than to external ones (innate ability, task difficulty, luck). Demonstrate the importance of making improvements, even if they are not yet where they want to be.
- Use formative feedback. Feedback should be specific, constructive, and task specific. It should not judge, label, excuse, or even praise. The purpose of feedback is to provide instructive knowledge that will enhance the student’s performance.
- Normalize the struggle. Help students understand that everyone has problems, fears, failures, and self-doubt. Share stories about people like them who have overcome similar or even harsher circumstances. Treat students’ successes as though they are normal, not as isolated examples or flukes.
Perseverance is the ability to see a long-range goal, devise a plan, define the steps, work toward each step, and deal with obstacles and setbacks as they arise. It involves learning to be resourceful, adaptable, flexible, and accountable.
Given our society’s obsession with instant gratification, it can be particularly difficult to get students to venture into new areas of learning that may be temporarily uncomfortable for them.
How to support perseverance in the classroom:
- Hold students accountable for their work. For late and unfinished assignments, focus on the completion of the task rather than on the excuse or reason behind its tardiness. Require students to finish their work rather than giving them “0’s.”
- Teach students to reroute. Show students how to look at obstacles and either overcome or bypass them. Teachers can use examples from literature, group think-alouds, and other strategies to help learners confront difficulties.
- Help students practice the value of yet. Reframe “I can’t” statements by adding the word yet at the end of statements like, “I can’t do this ___ yet.” One teacher placed a poster with the single word, Yet, in a prominent place in his classroom. Anytime a student (or even the teacher) uttered the phrase, “I can’t ___,” he was required to go to the poster, slap it, and rephrase his statement to, “I can’t ___ yet.” It became a game to classmates to call each other out on “I can’t” statements.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Angela Duckworth’s work with her theory of grit has angered some who believe that expecting kids to be resilient puts an even further burden on children of certain ethnic, socio-economic, and trauma-laden backgrounds. They argue that telling kids they just need to “keep trying” somehow shifts the responsibility to the victim and adds to their self-doubt and frustration.
It is true that many of our students suffer immense challenges and telling them that if “they just work hard enough everything will be just fine,” is not the whole truth. Invalid statements like that can lead to disengagement and ultimately to disenfranchisement. However, despite the unjust realities of present circumstances, resilience is a positive quality that should be fostered in every learner. Problems cannot always be solved, but they can certainly be made better.
For children living with serious challenges and uncertainty, the long-term goals of future attainment may have little meaning. Teachers need to emphasis the here and now by showing every learner how to pick up the pieces after they face disappointment, loss, or setbacks. Educators should concentrate on how students can reframe their negative circumstances and help them learn to recover from difficult experiences.
How to support resilience in the classroom:
- Establish positive connection with students. Let learners know they are cared about. Resilience-friendly classrooms are those in which teachers make the time to find out about who their students are and what their immediate and distant hopes are.
- Model resilience in student interactions. Encourage survivor mentality over victim mentality by consistently asking students what aspects of their circumstances they can control and helping them seek ways to do that.
- Teach students to recognize and change negative, defeating self-talk. Have candid discussions with learners about “thought holes” and flawed logic. Ask students to find examples of erroneous reasoning in the media and in literature. Have them call out the teacher and each other for drawing inaccurate conclusions that may result in poor decisions.
Self-motivation is enriched by genuine achievement, especially after considerable struggle. To engage students, we must provide them with experiences that constantly stretch them to more complex levels. Overcoming initial failure is a powerful incentive for further pursuits. Teachers can act as meaningful role models who regularly demonstrate the value of self-efficacy, persistence, and resilience in choosing to maintain one’s own drive. What better gift can we give our students than teaching them the skills they need to thrive in our classes and in the future?