I have thought long and hard about how young adults react to their surroundings in terms of behavior, self-awareness, motivation, achievement, identity and overall attitude towards their present situation and their future. What inspires children to achieve, how do they build confidence, how do they react to disappointment, failure and success, what catalyst in their life makes them want to be successful, and most importantly when does all this start?
Being recently retired, I wondered how could I work with youth to answer some of these questions. An opportunity came where I was offered a teaching position for 4th grade in elementary school. The district was short on teachers, I have a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology, so I was hired.
I conducted some background research about the socio-economic characteristics of the community in which I was teaching. The first thing I noticed is that Arizona has one of the largest high school drop-out rate. Statistics for the Phoenix school system are dismal. Over 60% of 4th grade students in the district I was teaching in could not meet the minimum standards for reading and math. Why? Where are we failing our students as a society? Where is the accountability?
My experience over the next school year would begin to show a direction to enhance personal behavior and help students be more successful.
What are the major transitions a child experiences in school? My discussions with other teachers indicated 1st grade is a significant transition. Now the child is away from the family most of the day, is being taught the fundamentals of mathematics, reading, writing, and listening, and has to follow basic school rules.
4th grade seems to be the next hurdle in scholastic progression. In this grade students must apply what they have learned. They are expected to have opinions on readings and other pertinent discussion topics. This is a difficult time for them as socializing is now part of the transition. They are beginning to seek an identity and peer acceptance. There is also more homework and a significant increase in independent study.
7th grade is the next significant transition. Not only are students being challenged in all subjects, but expectations for reading, math, social studies and science are significantly raised. Writing is a huge factor. They are expected to put thoughts, opinions, and ideas in coherent written form. In addition, they switch from one homeroom teacher to multiple teachers, moving from room to room based on the subject. Their social life becomes more important.
While conducting math fundamentals assessment, what really struck me during the first two weeks as a 4th grade teacher was the anxiety, frustration and other self-defeating behaviors over the inability to solve basic math problems. It was not so much an inability to solve the problems, but the reaction to problems. The biggest hurdle were fractions and word problems. If I modeled how to solve a problem and gave a worksheet with similar examples, students could solve it. As soon as I used those same problems as a word problem, they sat in frozen silence and awe. I felt that they were never taught how to think independently and had no confidence in their abilities.
As the first term continued, I saw sheer terror and intimidation in their eyes during math tests requiring to think logical through a problem. The real problem was their inability to approach and surmount the challenge. These students had not developed sufficient self-discipline and confidence to master the problem.
I began to speak to my students about developing a logical and positive attitude to challenging situations and let them experience success. They are only nine years old, but then at what age do we start talking with children about personal development, a path to individual achievement?
As a result, I designed a presentation featuring the tenets of a winning culture and a losing culture. I wanted to show what it is like for someone who is living in a losing culture as compared to someone living in a winning culture. As an illustration, I used some of the comments and excuses provided during the term to define both cultures. After introducing these two cultures, I began to see a change in attitude. One caveat was if you are functioning in a culture of losers, you need to change your focus to fit the culture of winning. Soon after the students began identifying with both cultures, migrating between one and the other.
Throughout the year, I presented a various inspirational messages which over time converted many of the students to a more positive approach to school work and personal behavior. At the end of the year, several parents approached me to thank me for improving their child's attitude towards learning.
This inspired my “Spirit 2 Win” program seeking to help other students to find self-confidence and achieve academic success, no matter what the socio-economic environment may be, no matter what the ability level is. In the end, every child is a winner by choice.