How Do We Help Our Teens Be Achievers in Life?

There is no shortage of information, movies, and opinions about student achievement. Some talk about how to compete in a global economy. Others talk about the increased use of strategies such as cheating or using drugs like Adderall to improve performance.  Still others talk about how to promote achievement in a healthy way. Recently, I read an article summarizing a study referred to as “The Berlin Study”.  During the 1990’s, psychologists from the Universität der Künste examined violinists to determine who the highest achievers were and why. Fascinated by the findings, I read the article, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” that was published in the Psychological Review.

They came up with some very interesting findings. I think these findings are applicable to how we help our teens perform to the best of their ability.

One of the biggest findings challenged the idea that some are innately smart or talented in a certain area.  Now, this is not to say that some teens are not more inclined to like athletics, music, or academics. However, they noted that to be truly gifted at something required practice and dedication. Often times, those that were considered “elite” had been engaged in the activity for at least 10 years. This is consistent with more recent reports that doing well in school has more to do with effort than it does natural ability or intelligence.

The larger group of musicians was divided into “elite” and “average” players.  From this they gained some interesting insight on what separated the two groups.

  • They practiced the same amount of hours. The difference was in how they spent their time.  The elite group spent an average of 3 1/2 hours per day on what they called deliberate practice. This meant that they did uncomfortable, methodical work that stretched their abilities.
  • The elite group also practiced in large chunks of time – once in the morning and once in the evening. The average players spread their work throughout the day.
  • The elite group was significantly more relaxed, less stressed, more rested, and engaged in more leisure activities.

This is not to say that there are not individual differences in a person’s ability to multi-task or manage stress.  However, there are some interesting implications for how we teach our teens to study and build skills.

Let’s look at what all of this means.  First, doing work that pushes you may not be fun at the time, but it provides for a bigger increase in skill. So, the same work is easier the next time.  Seeing improvement leads to increased satisfaction and motivation to keep working.  For our teens, this means being persistent, even in the face of challenge.

It also seems as though doing something for larger blocks of time allowed the students to get into a groove.  You could say that their brain fired faster or they were in a “flow”.  In short, the work they were doing was more effective than work that was constantly interrupted. When work was spaced throughout the day, the students wasted some of their time getting back into the activity. For our teens this means that distraction and interruption can be a huge barrier to being an effective student. Changing music, checking Facebook accounts, or texting friends may mean (1) taking longer to complete the work and (2) getting less out of it in the end.

Finally, spreading work throughout the day can leave a person in a constant state of busyness, stress, and exhaustion.  This results in our teens thinking about what needs to be done when they should be sleeping, or even while they are working on something else. They may not have as much time for leisure activities because they are worried about having time to get everything done.  This means that our teens could benefit from separating their school work, activities, time with friends, and time for television, games, or social media into distinct blocks of time throughout the day.

While we are talking about these strategies as they apply to our teens, you may find that they work for you as well!

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Advertisements

Hearing Is Not the Same as Listening to Your Teen

It is just another Monday.  A mom takes her kids to school, does a few hours of work, runs an errand, and then heads back to the school to pick her kids up at the end of the day. She arrives at the junior high and her daughter is about 20 minutes late. Then, she rushes straight to the  high school to pick up your 9th grader. He gets in the car and starts barking! He is upset that she is 15 minutes late, annoyed that his sister is sitting in the front seat, and mad that he has to go to his aunt’s house for dinner that evening.  Mom recognizes that he is upset and says, “How was your day? Are you ok?” He responds with No! I am not ok! AND, I don’t want to talk about it!” Noticing how upset he is, she decides to sit quietly. Unfortunately, he keeps going. He starts drilling her about being late. “You are always late!  I should just take the bus to school!”  Then, he moves onto his sister. “Why are you sitting in the front seat!?! You know I sit in the front seat!” At this point, your daughter says, “I don’t know why you think you’re so special that you always get the front seat!” There is nothing to do but to declare silence in the car.  She say, “Clearly there are some bad feeling in the car. I think it is best if we don’t talk to one another until we get home.”  So, she drove the remaining 10 minutes in silence and everyone separated to different corners of the house when they got home.

What can she do now? Certainly, this mom could hear how upset her son was when she picked him up from school. How can she listen in such a way that she can understand why he was upset.   First she needs to check her intentions. In other words, why is she interested in listening to her son? To LISTEN BEYOND HEARING involves having one or more of the following intentions:

  1. Being truly interested or enjoying what the other person is saying
  2. Trying to understand someone
  3. Hoping to learn something
  4. Comforting or helping someone
Several, if not all of these intentions could be present for the mother in our example.  Now, lets consider what people do when they are not listening. Don’t feel too bad if you notice that you have had one or more of these intentions in the past. The reason this list exists is because everyone is a poor listener at one time or another. Often, when someone is NOT LISTENING, the person is:
  • Preparing for what to say next
  • Listening for a certain things and ignoring the rest of the conversations
  • Listening for the purpose of talking, rather than to hear the other person
  • Listening because of  obligation  (i.e. being nice, trying to gain their interest/affection, or feeling stuck – you don’t know how to exit the conversation)
  • Listening for the other person’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities
  • Trying to be right: listening for ammunition or weak points in the other person’s argument
Outside of having good intentions, it is important to think about how you are listening. Being a good listener is not about simply sitting in silence and nodding your head.  Effective listening involves using active listening skills. When you are using these skills, you:
  • Pay attention to body language
  • Paraphrase what the other person said so that you can be sure you understood it correctly
  • Clarify what has been said. This is similar to paraphrasing, but you ask questions like: “Did you mean…? Did you say…? Have I understood you right?”
  • Give feedback. After you have paraphrased and clarified, you can share your own senses, thoughts, feelings, reactions in a non-jugemental way.
Going back to our example, what could this mother say to her son.  She may approach her son and say something like, “I can tell your really upset. I am sensing that something happened at school. Is that right?” Her son may say “yes” and continue sharing. He may say “no” and begin clarifying. Or, he may need more prompting. Active listening often requires calmly investigating what is really going on.  “I can tell you are really sad by the look on your face. Is there anything that I can do to help you.” As is often the case, the boy in this story was not upset about his mom being late, or his sister sitting in the front seat of the car. It turns out, the boy failed a test that day, and found out that his ex-girlfriend [who he still cared for] was dating someone else.  These are things most of us would be upset about. Sometimes teens simply cannot fully recognize or control their emotions. In part this is because the emotional part of the brain is very active, while the frontal lobe that controls logical thinking and self-regulation is not fully developed.  The trick is to not take it personally, give yourself the time you need to be present, and then listen compassionately to what your teen is saying. Often, your teen will walk away from that conversation feeling truly heard and ready to move forward.