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.
- By Lenore Skenazy
are not sticking their feet out as much anymore.”
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.”
mean they used to trip each other more?” I asked, confused.
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
The fear of “messing up”
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.
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.
the same time, I just spent time observing six classrooms’ worth of
seventh graders in health class. I promote childhood
so the teacher asked them all to talk about what kinds of things they
were ready — or not — to do on their own.
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.
students to take risks
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.
it does, said
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.”
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
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
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
cajoling, more enjoying
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.
you’re doing less and less hand-holding and more and more
co-discovery, the kids have a bottomless appetite for learning,”
And as a bonus, “Your job as a teacher gets easier. You spend less
time cajoling and more time coaching, enjoying, and celebrating.”
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
and all our materials (how-to guide, suggested activities, letter to
parents, etc.) are free. We recommend it for kids anywhere from
because the results have been tremendous.
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.
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.
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!
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.
a lot more shoe-tying.
is president of Let
a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and
founder of the Free-Range