Even at 7 years old I had a gut-wrenching feeling that something wasn’t quite right. We watched as our friend Jenny walked up and down neatly arranged rows of desks filled with a new crop of second graders. Pasted to her chest, with her hands, was her failed assignment. “Hold it up and let everyone see it,” Ms. Holmann demanded. Desk by desk, row by row, Jenny passed by each of us to show the red “F” splashed across the page. I felt badly; she was my good friend and I could see she was beginning to cry. Mostly though, I was relieved it wasn’t me and I sensed other students felt the same.
My kindergarten and first grade experiences were nothing like this. The only thing that felt remotely familiar was the smell of newly waxed floors and my desk assignment. We were always seated alphabetically and this year I sat in the second row, third from the front. My desk was positioned closer to the door than the window. You would think I’d prefer the window so I could look out on the playground and daydream to forget; but I preferred being closest to the door. The door put me within getaway range. I would imagine my legs had wings and I could sail victoriously by my teacher without her noticing. Everyday I looked for opportunities to escape, but incrementally my legs began to feel more like lead than feathers. When the bell rang at the end of day I hurried along so I could be the first one out the door. I wanted to distance myself from her classroom, and never spoke about it at home.
One thing I learned was Ms. Holmann focused on our weaknesses and shaming was the method she used to teach us. So, when she decided it was my turn I was determined not to fall apart and believe the things she said…
In the 70s and for decades before, Penmanship was considered its own subject. I loved the process of creating the long, straight lines on an “L” or the seamless loop on an “O.” I saw students lose points on math equations because a teacher thought an “8” was a “7”; a mistake I was determined not to make. So, when Ms. Holmann passed out an 18-question math test I wrote my numbers out carefully, too carefully in fact. I had eaten too much time on the clock so by the time the test was over I had completed just 15 out of 18 questions. “Lazy” would become her new pet name for me.
It took her just under an hour to grade our papers and when she was done Ms. Holmann looked over and asked me to move my desk in front of hers. She could see I was hesitant and patted her hand on her desk. “Push it closer… right up against mine.” she said. Her heavy tone and the sound of my desk pushing against hers sent my head in a tailspin. She walked across the room and picked up a large piece of red construction paper. On it she outlined a large “L” and handed me a pair of scissors. “Cut it out,” she said. I cut along the lines and she ask me to tape it to the top of my desk. “Jeannine is lazy, people. This ‘L’ stands for ‘lazy’ and it will stay on her desk for the next 6 weeks to remind her lazy is unacceptable.” Six weeks sounded like an eternity; and I found myself wishing I’d been handed the walk of shame instead of the desk of shame.
At first, I tried to make friends with that red “L.” It spanned the size of my desk and I could feel it every time I rested my arms or as I worked on my assignments. The bright color would bleed through my work papers to remind me of how my teacher saw me and how she wanted my cohorts to see me as well. As days turned into weeks you’d think I’d begin to see myself as she did, but I refused. Still, something did happen. A little piece of me died inside. I had become an exhibition for my peers and, sadly, I wasn’t sharing my experiences at home. As an adult I wondered why my younger self didn’t run home and tell my parents, but shame can do that. You can be afraid to share it for fear that you’ll let someone else down or that shame could take on another life of its own.
Research and our good sense has taught us that a healthy relationship between parent and child is imperative for a child’s healthy development. It’s a place where trust can flourish so children feel able to share. Our good social and emotional health actually depend on having these well-established, empathetic relationships; so it should come as no surprise that a healthy student-teacher relationship is essential as well. Students spend a significant amount of time in the classroom so having individuals who can teach children to cope with setbacks and share helpful strategies can turn children’s obstacles into accomplishments. Fortunately for me, the power of love, acceptance, and guidance is a wonderful antidote to ridicule and shame; gifts that many mentors before and after this isolated experience have given me.
Labeling can be harmful on the psyche. We know from research that both positive & negative stereotypes can foster beliefs in ourselves that hinder our achievement. In her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success author Carol S. Dweck explains the dangers of a fixed mindset (hard-line attitudes) vs. the benefits of a growth mindset (successful attitudes). Dweck examined a study of schoolteachers with two very distinct attitudes. Teachers that had fixed mindsets believed students entering their class with different achievement levels were extremely and permanently different. They believed students who were smart had the natural ability to be so and students who struggled would always be that way. These teachers not only felt they could predict a student’s academic success, but they also felt they had little to no influence on their student’s ‘intellectual ability.’
In contrast, teachers with a growth mindset focused on the belief that all their students had the ability to develop their skills. In fact, researchers found when students were placed with a growth mindset teacher it didn’t matter whether students began the year in the high or low-ability group. By the end of the year each of these students experienced significant improvements. In short, the teachers with a growth-mindset found a way to positively connect with all of their students, which fostered student’s positive beliefs in themselves and promoted their faith in their skills and abilities.
When we are fixed on a notion about a child it can limit their achievement and fill their mind with doubt and fear of disappointment. Even praising children for sheer talent over effort can rob them of the hard work it took for them to accomplish a task. These notions can encourage children to equate talent with natural ability when we know talent is nurtured and maintained through a more disciplined approach. So, what are some helpful strategies parents can use to nurture healthy attitudes in children? Dweck encourages us to regularly ask our children, “What mistake did you make that taught you something?” and “What did you try hard at today?” Regularly sharing these experiences as a family, at the dinner table for example, can promote their healthy understanding of the importance of their effort, the setbacks they may have experienced, and strategies they can use moving forward. Open discussions teach children to learn from each new experience and nurtures their faith in their abilities to handle new situations.
Children are surrounded by caring mentors inside and outside the home. Parents, grandparents, schoolteachers, spiritual leaders, and other community members play a part in your child’s upbringing. When we teach children to nurture their skills they begin to connect their efforts with outcomes in addition to learning that they have the ability to make wonderful things happen.