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When I was 16, I studied Chinese, then a new offering at my public high school. After only one semester, my teacher, Liu Laoshi, asked me to enter a Chinese language contest. This was not because I had shown any inherent talent. I was reluctant, to say the least, but he assured me I could simply memorize and deliver a speech that he would help me write. He neglected to mention the Q & A session.

It was pouring when I drove to the event with a good friend and fellow competitor, and my windshield wipers stopped working halfway through the ride. We had trouble seeing five feet in front of us and arrived late, just in time for the judges to announce my name. I was ushered to the front of the room, where I stated several basic facts about myself that I had practiced repeatedly in Chinese. When I finished my presentation, I glanced up to find someone talking to me. I stared, startled, at the panel of 10 native Chinese-speaking judges in the first row. One by one, they each asked me a question. If I had known any Chinese whatsoever, I would have realized they were covering deeply intellectual territory like “What is your name?”  Instead, I retrieved the only useful phrase in my repertoire—wo bu zhi dao—“I do not know.” I repeated this multiple times and then returned to my seat feeling foolish. As I left the stage, I scanned the room for my friend, who was up next. I quickly realized she had fled the auditorium.

While I was nursing my embarrassment, my mother thought this was the funniest story she had ever heard. She delightedly retold the tale, focusing on my courage instead of my humiliation. She told me she valued my efforts even though I didn’t feel like I had much to show for them. She also helped me appreciate that even though this experiment had ended badly, it didn’t have to carry great significance. When I think about that story now, I mostly remember that it was gratifying to tackle something daunting. Her attitude helped me shake off the mortification, appreciate the implicit absurdity, and return to the task at hand—learning Chinese. Her reframe was critical, but for the record, if someone addresses me in Chinese my response will still be “wo bu zhi dao.”

These days, I work as a middle school counselor, and parents often tell me they want their children to maintain a growth mindset— to internalize the idea that success is based on tenacity, not innate ability. It’s tough for adults to work through frustration, and we can scroll through a mental catalog of hard-won accomplishments. For kids, dogged perseverance requires a leap of faith. I strive for my mother’s touch when I work with students stuck in defeatist mode. I may note that it’s true they haven’t mastered the Pythagorean theorem or figured out where they belong socially, but I try to add the critical word “yet.”

When children retain a sense of optimism, it is much easier for them to work through obstacles like falling behind, not clicking with a teacher, or deciphering a difficult assignment. As a counselor, when a teacher shares with me that a boy has spent much of class writing gibberish across a worksheet, or furiously demanding to know why a lesson is important, I ask the child questions designed to gauge how difficult he finds the subject matter. He may say the teacher doesn’t spend much time reviewing the material because “everyone else is so much smarter.” He may roll his eyes, questioning the relevancy of glucagon versus glycogen. Or he may lose his bravado and fall apart, crushed because he did poorly on a recent quiz. Children have many different ways of expressing “this is hard. I feel like giving up.” It can feel safer and even sensible to goof off or check out.

So what can we do? For both parents and school professionals, it’s more about calibrating our reactions than protecting children from initial frustration:

  • We can set the tone, keeping a sense of humor and focusing more on process than on results.
  • We can help them still those internal voices that make excuses or tell them they are not up to a task.
  • We can model gracefully accepting objectionable feedback in our own lives, noting its power to guide our next steps.
  • We can add that important word “yet,” explaining that the point isn’t to get everything right the first time.
  • At the end of each day, we can ask them how they managed any struggles, validating that learning is not passive.
  • We also can help them identify strategies that keep them in the game when it gets tough, whether they need to ask a teacher for help or take a short break.

Students learn in different ways, but they all benefit from flexibility and empathy. To bring this point home, administrators at my school asked staff members to take two basketball shots in front of everyone. The activity was held during training before school started, and despite the supportive environment, many of us felt self-conscious. It was a good reminder that when our new students arrived the following week, some would jump right into class discussions, persevere through setbacks, and stick with difficult tasks. Others would avoid work or hide in plain sight, fearful of feeling exposed. We knew that on opening day, the students would flood the building like salmon swimming upstream, each one embarking on a solitary and demanding voyage. We would watch them rush the building with their charged energy, wondering what triumphs and challenges lay ahead. With support from both home and school, we hoped they would have the attitude and endurance needed to wade deeper and swim harder.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and professional school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

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