By Jennifer Naiman
Have you ever found yourself applauding your children for the final product of an arduous endeavor, versus the process by which such an accomplishment was achieved? Many of us do so in good faith without recognizing the importance of celebrating the entire process of learning, in addition to the final product.
Take for instance a kindergarten student who masters blending CVC words after struggling for months. Enthusiastic educators or parents may jump up and down and present awards as ways of displaying pride for the child who accomplished such a feat. While cheering on students’ final work is a kind and “expected” gesture, I find it to be more valuable when the process along the road to success is given equal, if not more acknowledgement, than the final product. This is because we want to instill in our children a natural love for the learning process, which will undoubtedly include setbacks. If our children do not feel a sense of pride during the progression of learning new tasks, they may feel exhausted when met with hindrances, rather than motivated to persist.
Celebrating only the final product of learning teaches our children that it is the outcome that matters most, whereas the development of resilience, perseverance and the opportunity to self-correct mistakes is of lesser significance.
When students develop the skills to independently recognize that obstacles are just another step in the process of reaching goals, they are generally more likely to persevere with less prompting from adults. When children develop resilience, acknowledging it as a necessary tool for the learning process, they may be more inclined to be self-starting learners, even for long-term ambitions. When a child’s inner voice begins to say “I’ve failed, but failing is just one step further in reaching my goal,” the child has embraced the process of learning, not just the product of learning.
While reaching any goal is deserving of praise, I believe that the more we model an affinity for the learning process versus the product, the more likely our children will further develop internal motivation for learning even the most complex undertakings.
Imagine a baby who is first learning to walk. The emerging toddler takes a few steps and falls, an ultimate, initial “failure.” Yet, as parents, we are clapping, smiling and cheering the child on, even though the desired outcome (walking) has not yet been achieved. The child then copies what we are modeling by clapping for themselves, bouncing excitedly and smiling ear to ear. At this young age, they have learned to cheer themselves on for the progress they are making while learning, as opposed to the outcome.
When children are babies, progress is made so quickly (even with obstacles), that it’s easier for parents to model elation for the process. It is also easier for the child to cheer themselves on, without ever having experienced feelings of inadequacy for failures. With time, however, motivation for the natural learning process tends to slow when academic demands and social pressures increase as the child ages. We tend to compare children to one another and see success through tunnel vision. If learning occurs “too slowly” or in a different fashion than envisioned, the adults in the child’s life may feel disapprovingly, and subconsciously model irritation with the learning process. The child may then begin to recognize that satisfaction comes with the final product of learning, but not throughout the process. This is flawed thinking, and something that I hope will change with proactive social emotional education about the way we learn.
So how do I envision such a change of mindset to take place? Just as with any aspect of social emotional learning, if we expect our children to develop an appreciation for mistakes and failures as part of the learning process, we as educators and parents must work towards genuinely appreciating all of the above as well. Modeling and genuineness are the greatest, most natural teaching tools.
For instance, my students take great pleasure when I make a mistake like spelling a word wrong on the board, and then listening to me enthusiastically state, “Oops, I made a mistake! That means I’m learning!” The best feeling is when our students begin emulating what they are hearing and say phrases like, “I didn’t get it. It’s OK, maybe next time!” Or, “I’m proud of myself for trying!” When phrases like these become students’ inner dialogue while working, I know that the joy of the learning process has become a significant part of their experience. When the path toward achievement is visible to our children, instead of just the final destination, I believe they will be more likely to step foot along the path without the oftentime anticipated resistance.
For children who struggle with the lack of instant gratification throughout the learning process, consider stumbling blocks as crucial aspects for reaching goals, which will be significant later down the road and well into adulthood.
Here are a few tips for helping foster a love of the learning process:
1. Embrace imperfections. If we deny our errors, it’s more challenging to overcome them. Imperfection means there is potential for growth and new knowledge.
2. Be mindful of verbal or internal dialogue when it comes to the learning process. I am working toward accomplishing my goal. I am proud of my efforts versus it is taking forever for me to finish this and I can’t take it.
3. Focus on the growth in the process of learning, versus the speed of the process.
4. Use words like: “I can’t do it, yet, but I will be able to. I just haven’t mastered it yet.”
5. Give examples as to why failure is a part of growth. Did you know that Mommy actually failed her first driving test, but because of that I learned how to parallel park much better than I would have the first time?
6. Allow room for resilience. Let your children make mistakes. Don’t “rescue” them repeatedly. Let them see how good it feels firsthand to learn from a mistake.
7. Help guide your child through the process of goal setting in small increments to work toward greater achievements. Celebrate small accomplishments in the process. Make sure goals are realistic and attainable.
8. Help your child discover modalities by which they learn best.
When our children develop a love for the learning process, the sky is the limit. Let’s help them get there.
Jennifer Naiman, M.S., is an MSDE-certified school counselor. She works at Darchei Noam Montessori andGreenspring Montessori as a school counselor and teaches SEL at JEWELS Inclusive School. This is part of a series on topics in education facilitated by The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, with the partnership of local schools and educators. CJE promotes and facilitates lifelong learning that nurtures Jewish identity and strengthens Jewish community.