When you feel like no matter how hard you try, you still won’t succeed- it’s hard to muster enough energy to keep trying regardless.
Just think about every time you have tried to diet- with so many failures behind you, isn’t it hard to try just one more time?
This happens to kids a lot with academics, but it also happens with their behavior.
Growing up involves making a lot of mistakes.
Kids naturally struggle to do “basic” things that we, as adults, take for granted as common and expected behavior. Things like sharing, cleaning up after yourself, and using a calm tone of voice (OK, so lots of us still struggle with some of these, case in point).
It is easy to get into the habit of correcting and criticizing the young humans in our lives because they tend to do a lot of stuff we don’t prefer.
High expectations and accountability are great, but we shouldn’t expect our children to meet behavioral expectations that aren’t developmentally appropriate.
Sounds reasonable, but this is trickier.
It’s easy to look at a developing baby and consult the vast online charts about physical development.
But charts about emotional, psychological, and behavioral development are harder to come by.
This lack of information leads many to set defacto behavior expectations slightly outside the developmental norms. This leaves our kids feeling like they are failing most of the time since, most likely, we have accidentally said things that point out the discrepancy between where we think a child’s behavior “should be'' and where they are.
Have you ever said something like, “Trina- why do you have to cause so much trouble in our class?” or “Julian, I wish you would just learn to control yourself. How many times have I told you not to take stuff from other kids?” or perhaps the classic, “If you weren’t so lazy….”
While we feel like our frustrations with the disparity between “actual” and “should be able to” are justified and that our verbal labeling of certain behaviors will motivate change, what we are doing is giving the child or student evidence that they “are” a certain way which makes it more likely that they will continue to act that way in the future!
Howard Glasser, creator of “The Nurtured Heart Approach,” calls this building a negative “portfolio of evidence.” Kids use our reactions and labels as evidence of what kind of person they are. Then they act on that evidence by putting out more undesirable behavior. After all, they can’t help it. It’s who they are (or we have accidentally labeled them as).
It’s essentially the same feeling of incompetence and shutdown they get from repeatedly struggling with math. “I’m just a troublemaker- I always have been, I always will be. There’s no point in me trying to do better.” *Shrug*
Are all the times you have done this to your kids or students flashing through your mind?
I know. I’m with ya.
But great news, just like we helped create the negative portfolio of evidence, we can help create a new, positive portfolio of evidence. It’s easy to do, and the results are surprisingly rapid.
“The Nurtured Heart Approach” is a great program that teaches a simple but transformative equation for helping students rewrite their negative self-perceptions from being criticized and punished for their behavioral incompetence. They call it “energizing greatness,” one of the most powerful turnaround tools.
Here’s how it goes.
Let’s say we have a 13-year-old.
We’ll call him Paul, who struggles to be gentle with a younger brother. We’ll call him Sam. It feels like Paul is constantly picking on Sam verbally and physically. As a parent, this drives you crazy. Every time you see Paul's behavior toward Sam, something inside you snaps, and you lose it on Paul. You send him to his room.
You ask him, “why are you always so mean?” and tell him that “he can’t be around the family if he’s going to be so rough and inconsiderate.”
All normal and natural parental reactions are done to show Paul his behavior is unacceptable. We’ve all been there! But what’s happening here is that we are accidentally reinforcing Paul’s self-image as a person who is mean, inconsiderate, and rough.
When we give energy to these qualities and this narrative, it grows, and over time, Paul will end up living into this persona more and more.
In reality, Paul isn’t “always” like this, and much of his inconsiderateness might be chalked up to being a 13-year-old who doesn’t have the presence of mind or inhibition to carefully consider his actions- especially when his little brother has likely done something to stir the pot. He is kind, thoughtful, and gentle in plenty of moments.
But when things are OK, we don’t draw attention to the good behavior- we don’t give energy to the great things we see- they go unnoticed.
So here’s the trick to turning frequent off-track behavior into strong and appropriate behavior: notice and give energy to what is going well by using this helpful equation…
"I noticed that you [insert positive action observed], this shows me that you are [insert quality you are trying to instill.]"
So in Paul’s case- we would wait until the next time he demonstrates a friendly interaction with Sam and then casually say something like,
“I noticed you [helped Sam get breakfast this morning], this shows me that [you are a caring person.]”
If you think they will balk at you drawing this positive conclusion about them—the troublemaker—you can soften the conclusion by saying something like, “this shows me that you are starting to/you are becoming/you are learning to be caring and thoughtful.”
This equation and positive appreciation give them an immediate feeling of competence around behaving in a way they typically struggle with. This feeling of competence breeds personal conviction that they are, in fact, able to show up in this way and might be on their way to being the kind of person who is indeed caring, considerate, patient, etc.
This can go sideways if the qualities you choose to point to aren’t things the child values.
For example, if I claim a certain action was evidence of the child developing the quality of honesty, but the child doesn’t think honesty is a valuable or good thing, energizing their greatness around this can fall flat or become a manipulative form of external control.
Do some pre-work with your kids or class to discover the values and characteristics they hold as important- do they want to be someone who is trustworthy, or is being brave more important to them?
Using their values when you energize their greatness is super powerful. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to get creative and say what you see in them. They are still forming their internal value framework, and knowing what is valuable to you can help them figure out what is important.
You may have experienced something similar as a young human when you inadvertently heard a teacher, parent, or coach saying something positive about you. The fact that they saw something great in you made you want to demonstrate that trait even more. With the energizing greatness pattern, we intentionally speak all the good we can to each individual.
The result is more and more positive behavior, all because of a little dose of competence in the behavior department.
Brainstorm a list of qualities that you would like to see your children or students living into. Here are some ideas to start, but you’ll want to add your own!
Thoughtful Hard working
Choose 1 child. Choose 1 quality. Choose 1 day.
Don’t go overboard on this (yet). Try just to do this ONCE, and for now, don’t do it publicly. Take a minute and consider who and what quality you want to focus on first—got it? Great!
If your kids are used to you hounding them about everything and being pretty critical, you suddenly switching to Mr./Mrs. Positivity will be jarring to them.
Don’t turn energizing greatness into a speech or big moment. Mention it casually in passing and then move on. If they call you out, openly apologize for being critical in the past.
This might sound like, “Oh I know, I’ve been really hard on you- I’m sorry about that, I’m trying to be more positive. You’re a great kid and I’m grateful to be your mom/teacher/soccer coach etc.”
Then drop the mic and walk away.
When we build a culture of positivity by noticing and calling out the good we see and what it means about the person who did the good, our reliance on endless reminders, rewards, punishments, and nagging can take a back seat.
The young people in our lives will become much more inclined to make good choices about their behavior because they are internalizing values instead of avoiding criticism.
Big win for everyone! Go team!