How Patience and Practice Lead Students to Success
When I was in high school, I learned how to drive a car with a manual transmission. We drove our ’85 Land Cruiser halfway up the biggest hill in town, put the truck in neutral, and set the emergency brake. Then it was my turn to drive.
I have a vivid memory of being completely overwhelmed by everything around me: How would I get both feet to work? How could I keep the car from rolling backward? What about the people in front of me? Behind me? I stalled out more times than I can count but, with practice, shifting that Land Cruiser became, well, automatic.
As adults, we all have automatic processes that we’ve created to keep ourselves organized. Whether it’s the bowl by the door for our keys, the charging station on the kitchen counter for our phones, or the special place on a dresser for a purse or wallet, we complete these automatic actions without thinking. We’ve dropped our keys in the bowl and charged our phones on the counter hundreds of times before—so how hard can it be for our children to learn to do it, too?
As it turns out, it’s very hard—just ask your seventh-grade son, whose dirty socks never land in the hamper, or your tenth-grade daughter, who can never seem to find her homework on the morning it’s due. In this high pressure, high intensity world, we expect children—particularly middle and high school students—to “get it” the same way we do. But learning these methods takes time and practice—though not as much as you may think.
The good news is that the beginning of the school year is a great time to start. A return to a consistent daily schedule provides incredible opportunities for you to work with your children to get them situated and to help them learn to develop automaticity. Here’s one method that really works.
I spent the first six years of my teaching career working at a boarding school. One winter evening, I got a call from the mother of a boy named Anthony, one of the eighth-graders on my dormitory. Anthony’s mom told me that he had called her again that evening to ask her to send him some more clothes—even though she was sure he had more than enough to get him through until at least April!
When I went to Anthony’s room to check for myself, I was stunned by what I found: all of his clothes—his clean clothes!—had been shoved under the bed. When he got back to the dormitory, I confronted him. As you can imagine, he was embarrassed and ashamed, meekly explaining that he wanted to put his clean clothes away, but he was so overwhelmed by trying to figure out where in the dresser they went that he just gave up!
So, I walked back down the hallway to my apartment, grabbed some yellow Post-Its, a Sharpie, and a roll of packing tape, and sat with Anthony for the next few minutes as we made signs for all his dresser drawers: “SOCKS.” “T-SHIRTS.” “SHORTS.” He chose which drawer corresponded with which article of clothing—remember, it had to make sense to him, not to me!—and by lights out, we had a system in place.
The labels meant that Anthony didn’t have to think about what went where—he just had to acknowledge the t-shirt or sweater, glance at the drawer, and file it away. And the magic of automaticity meant that, a few weeks later, he was so practiced at putting his clothes away in their respective drawers that he was able to remove the labels completely…and his clothes never ended up under the bed again.
The hardest part of helping our children get organized is realizing that what works for us may not work for them. But don’t despair: as psychologist Howard Gardner reminds us often, there are so many different ways to achieve the same goal. If signs with words don’t work, maybe pictures will. Or perhaps a traditional dresser, with those mysterious drawers and their mysterious contents, isn’t the answer. Whatever the system, trust, buy-in, and a little bit of practice can lead to a whole lot of success. But ultimately, what made Anthony’s system so successful is that, even though I suggested it, he was the one who built it. I put Anthony in the driver’s seat, gave him some tools and some encouragement, and let him take the wheel. Providing children the opportunities to chart their own courses is the best gift that caring adults can give—so welcome to a new school year, and let’s get to work!