Sunday, October 31, 2010

Solutions for Struggling Children

When a child is struggling and stuck in school or life, a simple analysis from First Thessalonians 5:14 can solve the problem, or at least get started in the right direction. In this verse, there are three reasons a child may be stuck and not succeeding. And, there is a solution for each reason. On the surface, they sound simple. But, there is power in their use and danger if used wrongly.

Paul says in 5:14, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

The first reason for a lack of success may be that a child is “unruly.” He has the ability to succeed and knows he can, but is simply choosing to be out of step. This is willful disobedience. He should be disciplined; “admonish” is used here, but I am sure other forms of discipline are fine.

The second reason for a lack of success is that a child may be “fainthearted.” This is the child who has lost heart. He can do it, but doesn’t believe he can. He has given up. This child needs “encouragement,” which means to give him courage. He can do it and needs to believe he can so he will try. This courage to try is the heart of a braveheart.

The third reason for a lack of success is being “weak.” This is a child who cannot do it, he does not have the ability.  He needs “help,” someone or something that will support him in the effort. Admonishment will simply make him feel worse since he may be doing all he can. Trying to give him courage would be like sending a short seventh grade basketball player into an NBA game: no matter how much confidence he has, he will not succeed and will be discouraged.

This is the danger: picking the wrong reason for a lack of success results in using the wrong solution which makes things worse. If an unruly child is encouraged or helped instead of being disciplined, he learns that choosing disobedience brings good results and keeps disobeying. If a fainthearted child who needs encouragement is disciplined instead, he feel like a failure. Or, if the fainthearted child is helped when he could do it, his belief in his inability is confirmed and stuck becomes more stuck. Last, if the weak child is disciplined, he is certainly wounded and a bitterness and lack of effort can result. Or, if the weak is encouraged but not able, encouragement becomes discouraging. To avoid making things worse, it is important to select the right reason a student is stuck.

Things can become complicated, especially if a child is weak or fainthearted and masks his inability or fears by looking like he doesn't care or by acting out. On the surface this child may look unruly, and may be to some degree. Or, a child who is weak may need both help and encouragement. Pulling back the layers to understand the real reason behind the problem is important to avoid further harm. As doctors are told, at least do no harm.

In God’s wisdom, He ends the verse with “be patient with everyone.” Because the real problem isn’t always clear, parents and teachers need to be patient. That doesn’t mean allowing a child to act wrongly, but it does mean to keep digging to understand the real reasons for not succeeding. And, when it is not clear, be patient. In God’s description of “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, there is a reason patience is listed first. If we love each of our children as God loves them, patience will play actively as we work to understand how to help our children succeed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Finding Narnia

I named the last part of the trail where I regularly walk, "Narnia."  The woods close there, the trail dips and twists.  I can't see around the bends so even though I have been there hundreds of times, I wonder what is ahead.  A lot of times I don't get to Narnia, it depends on how much time I have.  If I go into Narnia it takes forty-five minutes instead of thirty-five.

But, I am always glad when I go there.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy climbs into the wardrobe while she and her sister and brothers are exploring.  As she goes to the back through the hanging furs, there is no end.  She finds herself in snow and trees, in Narnia.  When she tries to convince her brothers and sister that there is a Narnia, she shows them the wardrobe.  But, that time there is a back.  There is no Narnia and they make fun of her.  Sometimes it is there and sometimes it isn't.  But, if Lucy hadn't explored and they hadn't gone back again, they never would have found the new world where they would be kings and queens.

It takes time to find your Narnia.  If I am in a hurry, I don't go there.  If Lucy hadn't had time to play and explore, she wouldn't have found the land of Narnia at the back of the wardrobe.  I wonder in our busy lives of getting things done if we have left time to be adventuresome.  I wonder if our children are too scheduled to have that extra time to explore and discover their Narnia.

A braveheart shows courage to try new things and go new places.  But, if there is no time to see what is behind doors, down trails, or in minds, when will he or she learn the thrill of adventure that draws bravehearts to new places and ideas? 

How about we set the example for our children?  Show them a life of adventure and wonder.  It takes time and effort, sometimes only ten minutes like my Narnia on the trail, but sometimes it takes our life.  Our example, even in little ways, inspires our children to understand that life is more than a schedule and is full of adventure worth pursuing.

Then, how about we make sure that we don't plan so tightly that life is only a checklist?  Let's give them places and times where they can explore new worlds, new ideas, and new directions. Maybe its as simple as taking time to make the kitchen table a tent or as complex as helping your college age student travel several weeks with a friend in Central America.  Maybe it is just asking questions with a sense of awe as we go to the dentist or on vacation.  Or, taking a wrong turn on purpose to see somewhere we haven't been before.

Visiting the zoo recently, I heard a boy of about eight or nine saying to his mom, "I just want to explore a little. Can't I explore some?"  I am not sure she should let him go at the zoo, what with lions, and tigers, and bears around.  But, his cry seemed deeper.  "Just let me go some."  We have to find places and ways to let them go so they can explore.

That way they develop a heart, a braveheart, for seeing what's around the next bend in life.  They will learn to overcome the fear of the unknown with the goosebumps of adventure.  Raised to explore, they will be brave when faced with fears and twists in life, looking for what God has ahead.

Let's help them find their Narnias.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Words that Build Bravhearts

Words are powerful.  To build a braveheart, a child who has courage to try, parents and teachers need to praise the right things.  Even the smallest comment can convince a child that he or she is either smart or dumb, gifted or unable.  Either way, the child is stuck.  The one convinced that he or she is smart or gifted has no need to go for it, they already have it!  The one convinced that he or she is dumb or unable has no reason to try, they think it won't make any difference.

"Words that Ignite Learning"
But, as Kevin Washburn notes below in the excerpt from "Words that Ignite Learning," the child who is praised for effort "seeks challenge."  Noticing a child's efforts builds bravehearts and is in line with God's desire that we do our work "heartily, as for the Lord." 

Here are more of Dr. Washburn's comments that explain the power of words.  You can read the entire piece at from his October 20 post in Ecology of Learning.  While Dr. Washburn's comments are about learning, the power of words affects any area of a child's life and his or her courage to try.

"Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily."

"This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort."

"Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, 'My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.' The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

"However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: 'Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.' Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. 'Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!' is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort."

"Words that Ignite Learning"
You may also look at Dr. Washburn's Clerestory Learning

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Restoring a Lost Heart

A child with a lost heart needs immediate attention.  From simple unmotivated sullenness to rebellion, run-aways, drugs, and suicide, lost hearts are often dangerous, especially to themselves.  Recently, one of my middle school student ran away from home and when found talked about suicide.  This lost heart needed immediate attention, probably with a doctor or hospital until hurting himself was not an option.

A braveheart will have times and situations where he or she doesn't have courage, but those are isolated and become areas to identify and grow.  But, a lost heart has given up and, like a cancer, the condition spreads to other areas of life.  A lost heart doesn't often restore itself and the danger grows.

The condition of a lost heart is most often tied to a broken relationship, either with a parent, friend, or God.  Helping a lost heart begins with building relationship.  Parents are prime players, but can get help when needed, like our young middle school student.  When a child has lost heart, intensifying relationships is the first step.  It may not work cleanly because relationship requires two to work.  But, mom and dad need to do their part.  Lost hearts are not restored without intervention.

In Malachi 4, God talks about His plan to "restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers."  Right before this statement, Malachi talks about the need to get rid of arrogance.  Parents with lost hearted children must humble themselves before God and their children to have hope of restoring heart.  Parents must be the "parent," taking initative in a relationsip by humbling themselves, forgiving and seeking forgiveness if needed.  And, find bridges to connect with their child.

But, often parents cannot do it alone.  They must not be too proud to ask for help from others such as counselors, friends, peers, family, and pastors--no matter where they are found, lost hearts need relationships to reestablish trust and build bridges to help.  God is about restoration.  Just as parents are powerful to build or ruin bravehearts, they are powerful to be used by God to lead in restoring heart as well.

After immediate help to make sure he was safe, we suggested that the dad of our middle school boy carve out some special time with his son.  Things had been rough at home with health and job problems.  The boy needed relationship and attention.  The best one to give it was his father, since the boy was still open to time with dad.  It is as simple as throwing a ball or taking a hike, something the boy enjoys.  The key is forging a relationship where forgiveness is possible and the future is hopeful.