You Like Things You Think You’re Good At
by Bob Doman
I’m good at reading!
I love to read!
I stink at reading—I hate it!
I’m great at soccer!
I really like playing soccer; let’s play some more!
I’m lousy at soccer—I hate it, I quit!
Simple statement: You like what you think you’re good at. The ramifications of this simple truth are tremendous.
If you feel you are doing well at something, you are motivated to do it more. You approach each new event with a positive attitude. You approach each new event with intensity, and you want to keep doing it, and you want to do it again. The key to triggering neuroplasticity is providing specific targeted input with the necessary frequency, intensity, and duration. Learning is changing the brain—physically changing the brain by growing connections and building networks. The process is what it is—the components are written in our DNA; we can’t escape it. We need to understand it and use it to the child’s advantage.
For fifty years I have been preaching that the first thing, the first goal when trying to teach a child anything is to first teach them to love it. Whether we are hoping to teach a child to crawl, walk, run, read, do math, or do chores, we need to teach them to love it or at the very least, like it.
“You can’t teach a child to love cleaning a toilet!” I beg to differ. If you know your child, you should be able to use that knowledge to create a fun, motivating environment around teaching them how to do it; and once learned, give them a lot of real and positive feedback. You can teach them to love cleaning a toilet.
One of the first things I often have to encourage parents and caregivers to do before starting to teach a child anything is to remember school. Odds are fairly good that if you replicate a lot, if not most, of what you remember school being like, you’re doing it wrong. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning can be and should be fun.
Back at the beginning of my career, I was a special education teacher. I worked hard to teach the eighteen children in my class, who all had serious learning challenges and labels like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism, to love reading and math. Randomly throughout the day I would have class question sessions and would throw out questions to a few of the kids in each session. I knew the kids and knew what they knew, so I would call out a child’s name and ask them a question that I felt confident that they could answer correctly; and when they did, I would wing a poker chip at them that they would have to scramble for. The token bought them time at the reward table at the back of the room. I taught the group to cheer at every correct answer, and the lucky child would grab his poker chip and go back to the reward table, where there were math papers with their names on them and books with their names as well. The kids loved doing math and reading and loved earning the reward of doing more math and reading. The tone, the environment, and the feedback can make most anything fun and positive. If the child likes whatever is to be taught and feels they do it well, they are going to approach the session with intensity and are going to want to do it frequently and to continue to do it (duration).
Another thing I did as a teacher was to mark only what was right/correct on a paper. I could give a child ten math problems, and if they only got one right, that gave me the opportunity to say things like, “Wow, you got that tough one right,” “See? You’re getting it—you got that one!” “Great, I bet next time you’re going to get more of them.” Why do schools always mark what’s wrong not what’s right? Typically if a child is given ten problems or questions, and if they got nine correct and one wrong, there is a big red mark on the one they got wrong. This essentially communicates to the child that you don’t care what they know, the emphasis is on what they don’t know.
We aren’t going to change what is happening in school very soon. I’ve spent fifty years trying to do it, with minimal success. But we can change how we do things at home.
I have spoken to groups of parents who have opted to keep their children home rather then send them to school, and I have actually encouraged them to refer to what they are doing as “home education,” not “home school,” because so many homeschoolers work very hard to replicate just what they do at school. We can do so much better.
You have the power to create fun, positive environments around teaching most everything. And you have the power to control the feedback and to make it positive. If your children approach what you are doing with positive intention and intensity, you are going to see them progress well, and you and they are going to enjoy doing it.