Expert Viewpoint: SEL

Anxious, Passive, Glum Students Are No Fun. Here’s An Alternative.

Kids are ready for more self-direction. A fear of "messing up" may be holding them back.

“They are not sticking their feet out as much anymore.”

That’s what the principal of a Long Island elementary school told me when I asked if she’d noticed her students becoming any more independent after they’d been given the homework assignment: “Go home and do something new on your own, without your parents.”

“You mean they used to trip each other more?” I asked, confused.

“No!” said the principal. “They used to stick their feet out for the teacher to tie their shoes. Now they’re not doing that as much anymore.”

The fear of “messing up”

It’s funny how one little story can bring an entire issue into focus, but that one did the trick. Over the course of a generation or two, something changed in the can-do attitude of kids. The upside is that they are not afraid or ashamed to ask for help. The downside is that somehow, they don’t feel as much need to hurry up and learn a basic skill that would allow them to get places, literally.

Ignoring the whole “But tons of shoes have Velcro now” issue, what I mean is this: Kids are expected to master a whole lot of academics, often at very early ages. Today’s preschoolers and kindergarteners are learning the letters my generation learned in first grade.

At the same time, I just spent time observing six classrooms’ worth of seventh graders in health class. I promote childhood independence, so the teacher asked them all to talk about what kinds of things they were ready — or not — to do on their own.

The students replied that they were scared to pick up the phone and order take-out. “What if I mess up?” Some were reluctant to enter a store on their own. Some had never cooked anything, for fear of hurting themselves or burning down the house. One girl said she was finally about to cut an apple for herself with a sharp knife, but at the last minute her mom said, “No. That’s too dangerous,” and cut it for her.

Empowering students to take risks

Teachers don’t live with their students, so it might not seem crucial that they can tie their own shoes, cut their own food, or talk to someone they don’t know. The fact that lots of seventh graders have never run an errand or done the laundry might not seem to matter.

But it does, said Drew Perkins, a classroom teacher for 15 years and now director of professional development at the project-based learning organization, TeachThought. Teachers who boost their students’ autonomy reap the rewards, said Perkins. “It’s massively powerful.” Feeling self-directed and competent translates into kids who take more risks in the classroom by doing something as simple as raising their hand to join the discussion, or diving into a quiz without asking the teacher question after question for fear of … “messing up.”

His own seventh-grade daughter used to be so nervous making presentations that she “would literally freeze with her hand in her mouth,” Perkins said. But this year — after Perkins encouraged her to shop for the makings of dinner by herself, first time! — “She had to make a presentation to a police officer, and it went well.” He attributed this to her being a little older, of course, “but going to the grocery store helped. She had to talk to an adult” — the cashier. And when that turned out not to be so terrible, she was ready for more.

In psychological terms it’s called exposure therapy: You’re afraid of dogs so the therapist shows you a picture of a dog, then she has you stand across the street from a dog, then you’re next to a dog, then you pet a dog. The terror is counter-acted by reality, and reality wins.

Less cajoling, more enjoying

Gever Tulley is founder of the Brightworks School in San Francisco and author of “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)”. Starting in kindergarten, his students are introduced to — and have access to — drills, hammers, handsaws and utility knives. The benefit is not just having kids who can fix a broken chair. It’s having kids who know they are trusted to be competent. That trust becomes the wind beneath their wings. Then, the more they succeed at challenging tasks, the more independent they become.

“If you’re doing less and less hand-holding and more and more co-discovery, the kids have a bottomless appetite for learning,” Tulley said. And as a bonus, “Your job as a teacher gets easier. You spend less time cajoling and more time coaching, enjoying, and celebrating.”

How can you foster that kind of self-direction and boldness? Well, the public elementary school with fewer feet-sticker-outers assigned all its students The Let Grow Project. That is, they sent the kids home with the assignment, “Do something new that you feel ready to do, but for one reason or another haven’t done yet, on your own.” That happens to be a Project promoted by my nonprofit, Let Grow, and all our materials (how-to guide, suggested activities, letter to parents, etc.) are free. We recommend it for kids anywhere from grades K–8 because the results have been tremendous.

Your kids are ready for independence

Little kids make their snacks, get themselves to the bus stop, rake leaves, sell lemonade. Older kids pick up younger siblings from school, go to the movies with friends, ride their bikes to the 7-Eleven. Some even try out for the teams they’d been longing to join.

These are things the students might not have done for years (if ever!), because our culture has been inculcating passivity: Wait for an adult to tell you what to do and how to do it. Our helicopter culture sees the risk in everything except never taking any risks at all.

But when the school tells parents, “Your kids are ready for some independence” — and all the other parents are doing it — even the most anxious moms and dads loosen the reins. Whether the kid succeeds or fails doesn’t even matter. In fact, if they “messed up” and realized it wasn’t the end of the world — that’s “exposure therapy” to failure. Good!

The newly empowered students come to school eager to share their stories —“I made tortillas!” “I built a fort.” “I taught my sister how to ride a bike!”— and the teachers see something new. A spark of maturity. An undiscovered talent. A willingness to step out of comfort zones.

And a lot more shoe-tying.

About the Author

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement.