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When Your Children Don't Believe They Can Succeed in School

Reboot their efforts to succeed with guided goal achievement recognition.

Has your child lost confidence in his or her ability to succeed in school, sports, friendships, or other skills? You can help your children understand why, and how, they can enhance their brains to reach their highest goals and ignite positive expectations to reboot their efforts to achieve success.

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

Just by thinking they cannot, they will not achieve their very best.

The brain is designed to stop putting out effort especially after repeated efforts and practice fail to achieve desired goals. This is part of its survival design to conserve its energy and not redo actions short of goal achievement. Thus, if your child has repeatedly tried, but failed, to achieve specific goals such as to remember what is read or studied, prepare for successful test outcomes, or improve a skill in school, music, or sports, just experiencing this lack of progress or success shifts his brain into the effort withholding state.

To remedy this loss of confidence that effort will result in progress and goal achievement, you can help your child plan for goal success and rewire his brain to experience the satisfaction of progress. Specifically,

help your child select a desired goal, that you see as achievable for her through a planned progression of small, obtainable, and evident progressive steps. The design is for her to recognize that her ongoing goal progress results from efforts along the way to the final goal. With these experiences, her outlook can shift from negative expectations to motivated perseverance and sustained effort. She will be on the path to recognition that she can be in charge of the way she makes her brain work for herself.

This may mean making lists showing the decreasing numbers of errors made during the reading of the same paragraph over a week, or the increasing number of correct responses in a stack of twenty math or vocabulary flashcards. If your child likes making graphs, he can use graph paper and use the horizontal axis to mark the date and the vertical axis to mark the number of correct responses on her flashcard practice sessions. Progress does not always have to be documented with numbers. If you go back to a book your daughter had difficulty reading a few months earlier and she now can read it aloud with expression, you can both share the pleasure of her progress. Some children are comfortable with their parents actually tape-recording their first reading so they can hear it again after they have mastered the oral reading of the book. Let your child collaborate with you on appropriate celebrations for achieving

Through the experience of progress and growing confidence in their potentials to achieve their goals, they will develop the resilience, self-assuredness, and perseverance to keep up their effort through struggles, boredom, frustration, challenges, and setbacks. As they build their mental positivity, their increased effort will also build stronger memory networks and skills allowing the goal success they want in school and beyond.

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Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

Explain their super brain powers of neuroplasticity.

When your kids seem to have low self-expectations, a great place to start is to teach them about their brain power and how they can build the brains they want for success, despite previous setbacks or failures. Point out that their brains have neuroplasticity power.

Neuroplasticity is the process that makes the brain's wiring stronger each time a circuit holding information is activated (used, remembered, practiced, applied). The way neuroplasticity works are similar to how exercise builds muscles. The repeated use of muscles makes them grow larger and stronger. Neuroplasticity facilitates the brain's construction of stronger networks to retain and learn each time that information is reactivated.

This is the power that provided the very strong brain memory networks developed as they practiced and succeeded at riding a bike, kicking a ball, or keyboarding. They went from making lots of mistakes and slow speeds to progressively increase accuracy and, ultimately, automatic memory. Their own neuroplasticity made these circuits so strong as they continued to practice, that they became automatic and permanent. That's why they can ride a bike even or swim even after months of inactivity. Their practice made the brain circuits holding those skill memories permanent.

This same neuroplasticity power, arising from practice, that built for their bike, swim, keyboarding, or other skills is what they have in their own control to build the brain power they want for success in school or other goals. Remind them that each time they activate a brain circuit about what they are learning or want to remember, it gets stronger and stays longer. This is especially needed when progress is slow, and struggles are many. Let them know that the time spent working at getting better continues to activate their brains' neuroplasticity and the circuits are growing stronger and stronger even when progress fast. This means that if they want to be more successful at a skill, memory, or challenge, they know it is in their power to activate that circuit and make it stronger, more powerful, and faster.

Ah, but what about this question? Why will the brain keep trying when struggles persist and it has learned to expect failure?

Fotosearch Royalty Free Images
Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

Goal setting for goal progress

Just explaining neuroscience will not be enough to reactivate confidence and motivation in children who have lost the expectation that their effort can result in success. In addition, to helping your children understand that already have the brain construction system of neuroplasticity to build the brains they want, they will need guidance experience how their efforts really will achieve their desired outcome.

Building their effort-to-goal-achievement awareness, especially after previous disheartening failures, starts with their selecting of goals they themselves want to achieve. Starting with desirable, motivating goals will help initiate the positive expectations they need as they plan for their goal progress.

Break down the route to the goal into steps that are achievable with progress evident for your child

Goal success confidence gradually builds or rebuilds when children are aware of ongoing progress to goal achievement. It can be disheartening to spend hours of practice or skill building without recognizing any progress. Remember, if their brains have experienced repeated goal failure, they become increasingly wired to withhold effort when they think something is too hard for them to achieve.

Work with them as they plan out the progressive steps that will take place throughout the unit of instruction at school or skill building (e.g. sports, instrument, sustained reading time). As they proceed on this stepwise progression, at their own pace, on route to the final goal, feedback of progress will be critical. When they are clear about the sequential tasks that need to be mastered as they apply effort, and can recognize what their brains achieved with each step on route to the final goal, their confidence and perseverance will thrive As they recognize successes, they will need less guidance from you about how to break down large tasks into smaller achievable ones. However, maintaining your continued interest in how they make such plans as they progress in the future will sustain their ongoing efforts

How they will see ongoing progress to goals along the way to success.

Work with them on progressive goal plans to allow frequent evidence of their stepwise progress reflecting their effort applied along the way to final goal. Initially you'll need to guide them in how to recognize smaller progress steps to their goal (e.g. more flashcards recalled, more parts added to the Lego project, finishing each sentence, paragraph, or page (depending on age or skill level) in a writing assignment, increased number of feet they throw the ball or get the Velcro dart on the target, and, especially, less quitting in frustration.)­­­­

Once they have charted a progressing course, they'll be able to select ways to monitor their ongoing progress enhancing their awareness that perseverance and effort are tools they do possess to achieve success. Help them see how these gradual goal progress experiences derive from having strengthened their own brains with neuroplasticity power. They'll build a critical understanding of how their effort brings goal progress regardless of past experiences. They are on track to building their confidence that they do indeed have the ability to improve their outcomes through their own effort. They will be prepared, determined and optimistic about their potentials for achieving success.

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

Do they think of mistakes as failures?

Well-meaning parents may not realize that by frequently asking their children about their grades (or worse yet, the grades of classmates), that they are putting emphasis on only one aspect of learning. One of the most valuable lessons you can offer your children is they are far greater than the sum of their test results. Assure them that mistakes are only setbacks if they choose not to use them for guidance to better outcomes the next time.

Help your children realize that mistakes come with all learning and provide pathways for what they can do to improve. Allow them to see when you made or previously made your own mistakes and how you learned from them. If your errors arise when you're together, describe what’s going on in your own mind. Explain your feelings if you are frustrated, angry, or feel bad about your mistake and include how you’ll build on what you learned from it for success next time.

With older children, who interpret their mistakes as failures or evidence that they lack the abilities to succeed, you might share what insightful people have said about mistakes:

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” —Albert Einstein

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” —Mahatma Gandhi

“We learn from failure, not from success!” —Bram Stoker, author of Dracula

Provide opportunities for your children to share with you and safely express their own opinions or interpretations of things interesting or relevant to them. Reminding them that there is no “right or wrong” interpretation, helps reduce their mistake fear. Actively listen to what might be uncomfortable self-expressions. Responding with interest and providing specific positive feedback will increase their active participation with you and in school. They will increase their comfort and confidence for speaking out in class discussions, asking questions, trying different ways to solve problems, and writing answers to essay questions where they are asked to analyze information.

Source: aboutmodalfin

Positivity and Effort Reboot

Children can build or reboot their confidence, emotional comfort, memory, skills, and positive expectations as they rewire their brains away from the negativity that has lowered their expectations and effort. As they understand their neuroplastic brain powers and see the evidence through recognition of their goal-progress, they will build their resilience, positive expectations, and confidence that their efforts will continue to help them learn at their highest potentials.

As you guide your children’s recognition of their abilities to learn successfully and participate more confidently, they will reconnect with the joy of school they had in kindergarten. Their brains, thus engaged, will sustain effort with the expectations that success is in their reach. Their neuroplasticity will construct stronger memories and more importantly, they'll reignite their natural enthusiasm to understand and investigate the world around them. They will build their self-motivated habits of applying effort and persevering through setbacks as the learn more efficiently and joyfully.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
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