I consider myself a rock climber. Not the ‘free solo’ sort who will scale Half Dome without ropes and gear. I’m more of a ‘give me a safety harness, thick mats, and let me climb in a gym’ sort. Nevertheless, I enjoy it. Clinging to the wall is one of my happy places.
I relish an opportunity to puzzle out the next move, and ascend step by step. The challenge brings me focus, a sense of accomplishment, and builds a skillset and strength to ‘level up’ to the next test that had previously been beyond reach. There’s a rush of joy and achievement when I’m finally able to complete a route to the top of the wall that, just a week before, had been simply too difficult to scale – the handholds too small for my grip, the spacing too vast for my body to cover. There’s value in embracing the struggle – in problem solving through the enigma and working through it – and that value comes in physical, emotional and mental forms. I have found it to be a critical component to my own personal wellbeing and, I would argue, all students should be taught and conditioned to be rock climbers in a manner of speaking.
On October 6th, while students had the day off, Learning Project staff attended a live webinar provided by AISNE called, “Managing the Emotional Wellbeing of Our Students.” Within this session, Nichol Ernst – clinical therapist and CEO of Summit Achievement – shared with attendees the true importance of the quality of ‘resilience’ in children. This has been a hot topic, especially as child/adolescent anxiety rises and parenting styles shift to be more protective of children. In this session, Ernst discussed how critical it is for children to experience struggle in order to exercise the muscles required for resilience. That is, we as adults should not aim to remove all boulders, or challenges, from a child’s path in life.
Ernst acknowledges, however, that not all struggles are created equal. “Unsafe struggle” is when adults truly do have to step in to rescue a child, whether it’s due to authentic medical issues, social challenges beyond a student’s capacity to navigate, etc. However, “Safe struggles” – those that, with effort, determination, creativity, problem solving, collaboration – are not only helpful to a child’s healthy development, but essential in developing self-confidence and autonomy, and avoiding undue dependence on adults. Such struggles are daily challenges that students find themselves navigating – ie. forgetting a homework assignment and dealing with the natural consequences that come with it, managing a social conflict with peers, developing plans to tackle a difficult long-term project, and more. In these moments, it is natural for adults to feel compelled to swoop in and help, to save the child from feeling pain or disappointment, but by ‘removing the boulders’ from a child’s path, they never learn to navigate them successfully on their own, which inhibits their development of critical thinking habits, of self-advocacy skills, of emotional regulation, and, yes, resilience.
At The Learning Project, we intentionally and thoughtfully place those boulders in students’ paths – we call this building a child’s sense of competence, and it is integral to our lesson design and overall approach to education. We know that a feeling of competence is core to building intrinsic motivation in children, so, in small classes, children are constantly observed and assessed through both formal and informal measures, and teachers strive to calibrate the curriculum to meet students at the appropriate level of challenge; the point where they are making some mistakes and working through them, but not so many mistakes that engagement declines or self-esteem suffers. Taking the ‘boulder’ analogy, we’re strategically placing appropriately sized obstacles before students so they have to maneuver their way intelligently in order to advance, to take risks and learn from mistakes, to ask for help when needed, and to simply power up and clamber over them when necessary. We’re aiming for the ‘grapple zone,’ where children can successfully work through struggle to learn from their errors and also to build a durability of mind and spirit. We’re fostering metaphorical rock climbers.
In rock climbing gyms, routes from the floor to the top of the wall are given ratings from easiest to hardest. A first-time climber being able to hop on the most difficult route in the gym and successfully make it to the endpoint would be incredibly rare, and nearly impossible – unless that person was Spiderman. To the average, non-superhero, it would lead to disengagement, frustration and/or a sense of self-doubt quite quickly. At the other end of the spectrum, even a mediocre athlete spending climb after climb on the easiest path to the top would experience boredom and, likely, the same end result – disconnection from the task at hand, and a stalled skillset.
However, when a climber finds the right challenge level, they advance themselves in a number of ways. Taking on novel challenges and making mistakes causes the synapses in our brains to fire, charting new connections, and when we learn from mistakes, we’re creating new, durable learnings that restructure the brain and better prepare us for the next challenge ahead. That is, through experience – what we do and what we do not do – we rewire our brains, and through time and practice, those new wirings settle into enduring memory. In this way, when we learn through struggle, we are physically, mentally and emotionally growing.
As famed mathematician, author and Stanford Professor, Jo Boaler, writes, “Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity, and if we are not struggling, we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains, but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential.” She continues to say of adults, “We are culturally trained to feel bad, and to rush in and help, when this is probably the last thing we should do.” Instead, Boaler advocates that adults foster a growth mindset in children that focuses on effort, the benefits of practice, and the knowledge that we can grow in anything that we dedicate ourselves to. At The LP, we strive to find each students’ “just right level,” taking Boaler’s advice to heart as we develop, nurture and appropriately challenge each learner.
Carol Dweck, infamous growth mindset champion, reminds us that it’s not just about effort, however: “Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck.” That is, spinning our wheels in struggle and putting forth our best effort isn’t sufficient. Children need to be willing to take some chances and recognize when help is needed. They need to be secure in their understanding that help is not giving up – it’s a key strategy when in the grapple zone, and is one of many tools needed in order to build resilience and a skillset to handle unique challenges in the future. As Dweck writes, “The path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.” Such is the development of resilience in children.
Resilience is a quality that can’t simply be taught; it is developed through first-hand experience, by persevering through moments of safe struggle, and oftentimes requires us as adults to step away and simply let our little rock climbers fall to the mat. And, of course, it might also mean providing some help when asked, and then, yes, encouraging them to try again. Through this journey, they, too, will find a happy place of their own and, perhaps most importantly, they will know that they discovered it under their own power. This pays dividends as they ‘level up’ to the next problem, or even try something completely new, having a solid sense of competence, knowing that whatever obstacles lie in the path ahead of them, they have the tools to navigate them with creativity and resilience. That’s competence, and that’s developed through climbing. So let’s continue to find ways to allow our children to cling to their own walls, and let’s encourage them to choose a route that builds their strength and skillsets. And if we have done our job as caring adults, we can be confident in our own ability to step away and simply admire the progress, because we know that the child’s harness has been checked and the mats are there to break their fall – not us.
Boaler, J. (2019, November 1). Why struggle is essential for the brain — and our lives. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-10-28-why-struggle-is-essential-for-the-brain-and-our-lives
Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset/2015/09