If You Want Your Teen To Reach Their Full Potential, Focus on Effort

Posted on September 11th, 2011, 1 Comment

My experiences as a teacher and, later, as a student taught me that effort is the most important key to reaching your full potential. I wish I could say that that knowledge automatically translated into views and actions always aimed at helping my kids learn to value effort. But I have to admit that I sometimes slipped. Sometimes I took a shortsighted view of their education and acted as though I thought that A’s were the most important thing.

Now, I’d be willing to bet that almost every one of us would like our kids to get all A’s. The problem is that when their grades become the most important thing, we’re focused on short-term goals – goals that we don’t have a whole lot of control over. So we wring our hands with worry when they struggle with a difficult assignment. And when they make a mistake – when they don’t study the right stuff or don’t study long enough and don’t do well on a test – we fret and pull out our hair. In short, we’re not the sturdy presence our kids need if they’re going to develop the traits vital for long-term academic success.

At my best, I took a longsighted view of my kids’ schooling. When things got good and challenging, when they became full of doubt and began to worry that maybe they just weren’t smart enough, I’d encourage them to keep at it. I’d remind them (and myself) that uncertainty and confusion are always on the way to learning new things – that, in fact, those are the clearest signs that your brain is on the verge of getting stronger. And when they made a mistake and felt like a failure, I’d remind myself to see it as chance for them to build essential resilience and with it a self-confidence that comes from knowing how to bounce back. And then I’d get busy helping them develop strategies for doing just that.

Taking a longsighted view also meant that I had to change my line of questioning. When I inquired about a test or a project, instead of simply asking my teens, “How’d you do?” or “Are you done yet?” I asked some questions about the learning process as well. Below is a sampling of the types of questions I learned to ask.

For Everyday Schoolwork Ask:
– What’s challenging and new about this? Is any part of it boring?
– What’s your favorite class right now? What kinds of questions are you asking in that class?

After a Test Ask:
– Did the test today do a good job measuring what you’d learned?
– While taking the test, did you learn something more? Or did you see something in a new way or see some new connections among the things you learned? (Good tests should do those things.)

For Projects and Papers Asks:
– Did you get stuck at some point? What did you do to get unstuck?
– Did you get a surprising “Aha!” or two along the way?
– Was there ever a point where you got so into what you were doing that you lost track of time? (See researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discussing this highly motivated state called “flow” in a Ted Talk. He gets to the good stuff at 14:00.)

Educator and author Dr. Michael Riera encourages parents to ask these kinds of questions to help teens view learning as an enjoyable, life-long process. He calls them “questions that linger” because they often need time to percolate. And he cautions against worrying that your question is a bad question if your teen doesn’t have much to say right away.

I noticed the lingering effect of these process questions at our house. My teens’ answers sometimes cropped up days later – at the dinner table or when we were in the car together. But after a while I noticed something else was happening too. My teens had caught on to my line of questioning. They began to anticipate what I might ask and to have answers at the ready. Sometimes, even without my prompting, they’d volunteer information about their process for learning or about their opinion of their work.

I learned firsthand that when we parents focus more on our teens’ effort and what they’re learning, they will too. And that’s exactly the kind of focus they’re going to need if they’re going to do the work required to reach their full potential.

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1 comment

  • I like that you focus on the process of education and not just the result. We are a very result oriented society but there is valuable learning that goes on during the process. In addition the process allows children to work hard, be creative, and rework an idea that falls short. These are all valuable tools for college and careers.

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