Sunday, June 5, 2011
If I Told You To, Would You Believe In Yourself?
What prompted this post was an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the attention-grabbing headline “Self-esteem exercise boosts minority teen achievement.” Despite my initial suspicions, it was not at all a rehash the ‘90s self-esteem psychology that I’ve seen employers blame for a young workforce ill-prepared to learn from constructive criticism because they’ve been raised on a strict diet of praise.
Rather, the article is about the profound power of expectations. Author David Kirp (a Berkeley professor of public policy) says that as early as kindergarten, a disproportionate percentage of African-American boys believe they lack the innate ability to succeed in school. And so they don’t. The piece goes on to cite middle school and college studies that, in a nutshell, suggest that when minority students are a.) told stories of upper classmen who succeeded in spite of feeling at first intimidated and unworthy or b.) given a primer on how “effortful learning” rewires the brain, the result is that test scores and grades measurably improved compared to control groups.
I’ll leave the education and minority-achievement debates to others. But I’ll take this opportunity to speak out on how chronic illness affected my own child’s expectations at school. His symptoms became progressively worse as he moved through junior high. A straight-A student in elementary school, he started to believe “I used to be smart, and now I’m stupid.” When things hit rock bottom, he was seeing several counselors outside of school. My child, his parents and school staff were at wits’ end. But the best thing any of us did - and what he may be most grateful for today - is when people told him he was wrong: he wasn’t stupid, he was just temporarily having trouble while we struggled to get neurological problems under control.
I am still very proud of the essay my child submitted with his college application. The third paragraph mentions a science teacher who recommended he be moved down from college prep to general ed classes because of his medical condition. “I set the goal to ‘prove him wrong’ and I was able to stay in college prep level classes…. I had to study harder and harder just to squeak by. Finally my hard work started to pay off and I was able to bring up my grades and do well on the SAT. For a while, I thought I wouldn’t be able to go to college and now I think I will have no problem earning a four-year degree.”
Fortunately, his college of choice agreed, and he is well on his way to succeeding at earning a bachelor’s degree.
Figuring out where to set the bar on expectations can be difficult. The wrong decision can be disastrous. But I can’t think of any circumstances where setting a goal for improvement is a mistake. Illness, minority status, nor intelligence tests can ever take into account the miraculous power of a child inspired to believe he can “prove them wrong.”