I make silver jewelry as a hobby. In crafting wires for earrings, I’ve learned that the more you work with the wire — by tapping it with a small hammer or rubbing it with a piece of steel — the stronger and more springy it gets. Getting the ear wire into the desired shape actually changes the alignment of molecules in the metal. This process is called “work hardening.”
I was tapping on a piece of wire the other day, and it came to me that work hardening could be useful for teaching resilience to children with ADHD and LD. Many rehabilitation hospitals and physical therapy clinics use the term to describe the method they use to help injured workers achieve an acceptable level of productivity that allows them to return to their former occupation. Despite the positive benefits of this approach in the medical/vocational world, I’ve never heard the term used in a school setting.
Exposing kids to the right amount of challenge or stress, and increasing the difficulty level bit by bit, while teaching them to identify their strengths, makes perfect sense to me. Kids will get stronger and more flexible, and will be better able to hold up under pressure. Just like the ear wires!
I also learned (the hard way) that if you work metal too much by tapping or bending it, it becomes brittle. The same thing happens with kids. If we make them do the same thing over and over, especially if they are not being successful, they become resistant or argumentative. If kids have hours of homework to do that they don’t understand, they get frustrated and tired. They may tell you they don’t have any homework, or they conveniently forget it at school or “lose” it in the black hole called their backpack.
If kids spend 60 or 70 percent of every day feeling stressed and incompetent, they lose their flexibility. Like a frightened turtle, they pull into their shell and stay within that rigid armor until they sense that the danger has passed. It’s difficult to engage or re-engage kids who don’t feel confident or competent. Kids who are working hard to avoid the embarrassment of failure or ridicule don’t bounce back from bad experiences, and it’s unlikely that they’ll seek a new challenge. They are more likely looking for the “Exit” sign.
Toughen Up Your Kids at Home
The good news is that there are some concrete things that parents and teachers can do to help their kids take on new tasks with an “I can do this” attitude. The formula is simple: Expose kids to tasks that are just a step below what you are certain they can do. This is what I call putting kids on the “cusp of their competence,” that sweet spot where enjoyable and satisfying learning takes place.
When kids work in their zone of competence, their brain chemistry works in their favor. Fear is reduced and the executive functions are at their peak. This is a great time to ask them to identify the skills and talents they called on to get the task done. If your timing is good, you might be able to introduce the suggestion that they take on a more challenging task. Here’s how work hardening might be done at home. If you know that your son or daughter can make a simple breakfast on his or her own, add one thing to the task (“You know, today I’d love to have a little cheese in my scrambled egg”). As you’re enjoying the meal they prepared with pride, talk with them about the skills they used to make it. Ask them what they did to make this taste so good or look so attractive on the plate. If they have a hard time coming up with an answer, point out the strategies you observed them using: “I like how you put that little sprig of parsley on the top — where did you learn that?” Take the opportunity, when all systems are go, to ask your child if he or she is willing to take on something a little more challenging in the future: “I love eggs benedict! Do you think you can make those?” And add, “I can help you if you’re not sure how to make that.”
This scenario has all the ingredients needed to reinforce skills, build confidence, and get the child to take on more challenging work:
> Initial confidence in his ability do the basic task
> Finding the task enjoyable (and, in this case, pleasing to others)
> Introducing a small challenge that makes the task just a bit more difficult, but does not overwhelm the child
> Completing the more difficult task
> Taking time to process the skills needed to do the task
> Suggesting/requesting to do a more challenging task in the future
> Offering help, if needed.
Bounce Back at School
Here are several practical things that parents and teachers can do to help kids handle challenges and bounce back after they experience failure. Teach kids the value of persistence, patience, and practice. Give them repeated opportunities to demonstrate these traits and behaviors, so they can see the relationship between these and success.
Kids need to be able to “fail well” to be successful. Some teachers begin homework review by saying, “Who got #7 wrong? In the past, many of my students have missed this one.” Then the teacher puts kids together in pairs and challenges them to find where they went wrong. The student duo has to work together to repair the error and share their solution with the rest of the class. This activity sends the message that all kids make mistakes, and puts the focus on fixing errors, not running away from failure or feeling shame.
Parents and teachers should expose kids to tasks that are just challenging enough. Making the work too easy or reducing the amount of work is insulting to a child’s intelligence. “Why should I only do half of my homework? You must think I’m stupid!” or “This is baby work!” On the other hand, work that is too hard, or that’s introduced before a child is ready for it, creates a negative reaction, causing the child to retreat or withdraw.
Talented teachers encourage kids to start with something they can do pretty well and then, when students are confident (and not before), they are encouraged to move to something a little harder. In schools, this is called scaffolding, climbing the ladder of success one rung at a time.
To get kids to accept work with less resistance, teachers and parents can say: “Here are three tasks. Some kids your age think task A is too easy, some say task B is not too hard and not too easy, and some say that task C is very hard. Take a look at these and tell me which one you’d like to do.” The secret here is to make sure that all three tasks are within the child’s ability. So, no matter which one she picks, she’s likely to be successful.
If she picks the “easy” one, you can say, “Next time would you like to try task B?” If she picks C and completes it well, say, “Next time we do (math, reading, science, whatever), do you think we should aim for level A, B, or C?” She is likely to pick C. So you keep her at level C for a while, while she enjoys repeated successes.
After she spends some time working confidently and feeling competent, you say, “For this activity I’ve got some level C items and a level D (more difficult item). Would you like to try that one?” (If she doesn’t say yes, let her stay at level C and add: “In the next few days, I think you’ll be ready for level D!”) This creates the expectation that she will be asked to do more difficult tasks, and that she will be able to do them successfully.
This strategy takes a little time, but it builds a foundation of success, reduces the fear factor, and makes it likely that your child will seek out a more challenging task. If you say too quickly to your son or daughter, “You can handle something more difficult,” he or she is likely to retreat and not want to move ahead. Too many kids spend a lot of time in school doing things that, either in reality or in their own mind, are too difficult for them. If they don’t believe that they will be successful, why would they (why would anyone?) want to continue?
Look for a Happy Ending
I started off talking about how to make metals bend without breaking, how to make sure that an earring wire springs back and does its job after being stressed by the wearer. Kids are more precious than any metal, and the idea of work hardening has much more of a payoff when it’s applied to your daughter or son. The goal is to create learning environments that will help them become a little tougher and more resilient, one careful step at a time. Under these conditions, it’s likely that kids will achieve at a level that is closer to their potential and that they will be more satisfied with themselves.
They might just become the kind of kids who stop saying, “I can’t, so I won’t,” and face new challenges with: “Bring it on! I think I can handle this.”