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5 brilliant things I learned from kids this year

By Anne Stevenson

I'd be much less wise, and far less effective as an educator, if I didn't hang out with kids. Those of us who work with, or on behalf of young people, must be intentional about doing so. And then we have to listen and pay attention.

Young people of all ages have taught me many things in the past year. Here are five things I've learned (and re-learned!), and why they matter for all of us:

1. Wonder

Kids are curious about everything and their willingness to ask questions makes them effective learners. Our job is to nurture and validate that sense of wonder and curiosity, and to actively cultivate our own sense of wonder. Abraham Heschel would remind us that "Wonder... is the root of all knowledge." In his book "Developing More Curious Minds," John Barell offers a wealth of strategies for nurturing curiosity and why it is essential to do so.

You might enjoy award-winning cinematographer and director Louie Schwartzberg's incredible video piece called "Gratitude." Schwartzberg uses time-lapse photography and the deep wisdom of a young girl to remind adults of the importance of wonder.

2. Kids care enormously about making the world better

Young people also understand that leadership means service. One of our student council members at Stevenson Elementary School in Fridley, Minn., told me what she had learned in her role: "I learned leadership doesn't mean you're always the one up in front. Mostly you're the one working alongside everyone else, encouraging them on."

In 2013, Minnesota was chosen as the first US site to host WE Day, a movement of young people leading local and global change. WE Day and its lead organization, Free the Children (an organization started in 1995 by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger to fight child labor) have inspired 5.1 million hours of youth volunteer service since 2009. Youth in 4-H are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities than youth not involved in 4-H. The work of psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi supports what young people say, "One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself." As adults, we need to support young people in their passionate desire to step up, lead and serve.

3. Kids crave feedback they can learn from.

Kids relish encouragement of their effort, their thinking process and their problem solving strategies. They want more than praise -- they want feedback that they can learn from. Dr. Carol Dweck calls this having a "growth mindset." Dweck is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation and has devoted more than 20 years to researching growth mindset. She tells us that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. A fixed mindset holds the view that your intelligence and aptitude is set in stone-it is a fixed quantity. A growth mindset is based on the belief that your intelligence and basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, and that effort leads to growth and mastery.

One way we adults encourage a growth mindset is by supporting and praising effort (rather than praising fixed intelligence or ability), and helping young people see effort as a path to mastery. Indeed, the skills of perseverance, critical thinking and good decision-making are identified as key aspects of social and emotional learning. In fact, the National Afterschool Association has named SEL as one of "10 Trends in Afterschool in 2014."

For some strategies on praising effort and developing the growth mindset in young people, try this tool.

4. Kids will tell you what an effective adult does to help them grow. Just ask.

Here's what several teenagers told me about how the adults in their lives help them learn/help them grow/help them develop as leaders:
  • "They go out of their way to know who I am as a person; they pay attention to things I do. They ask questions and they pay attention."
  • "They're passionate about what they're doing or teaching. They're kind; they care about your life. They 'be real' with you."
  • "To help me learn leadership? They shut their mouth and try to lead me to the answers by asking questions, not telling me what to do."
  • "They have to have expertise. They get you engaged by making it interesting. They are knowledgeable so they CAN be interesting."
  • "They give me opportunities to lead."

5. Pay attention.

Young philosopher Ferris Bueller had it right: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Csikszentmihalyi's research on 'flow' supports this importance we must place on being attentive in all of our interactions, our work and our play. It is what leads us to mastery. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, speaks of the "eloquent example of children." As an educator, youth worker, coach or parent, how do you pay attention to this eloquent example?

What have kids taught you recently? How will that make you better in your role in 2014?

Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

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  1. Anne, thank you for this article! Thanks for reminding me about the research on "flow". I enjoyed that when we focused on it for a while in our work. I am going to reread that because Life moves pretty fast.....

  2. Thanks Karyn! In digging into the "flow" resources a little bit more, I too was reminded about the connections he makes to mastery. You might also enjoy reading what Daniel Pink has to say about mastery as well...he writes about that in Drive. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how we might use the flow concept more with the youth in our programs. you think we move young people to mastery in solid ways or where could we do better?
    I appreciate you starting the conversation!

  3. It takes a community to develop our leaders, and to me, these are great reminders on how to identify potential and develop the skills that experience will refine. When we pay attention to our audience/customers, we are able to connect on a higher level and have a deeper impact. Truly, together, everyone achieves more.

  4. Thanks Marc,
    I appreciate your thoughts on how paying attention leads to deeper connections and greater impact. And that this is true not just in youth work, but in all of our interactions as well as work relationships. Do you think the ways we role model this behavior to young people also will impact how they will relate to others in adulthood? I certainly believe it will. Your phrasing of "develop the skills that experience will refine" is a helpful reminder to all of us who work with young people (or who are parents!) that skills and abilities are honed over time. Thanks for your comments!

  5. Anne,
    Some great reminders. We talk about praising effort around Stevenson all the time rather than telling kids "their smart." All kids need to know you learn to be smart. Too many kids believe you are either smart or your not.
    I have read both Barell and Dweck's book- both would be good reads to do as a book group for parents.
    Love your blog- keep writing

  6. Thanks Anne for making me reflect the importance of being a stronger leader and listeners to our children. You are an amazing woman with so much compassion and love for our kids. Thank you again for your leadership that you have brought to Stevenson students and staff.

  7. Anne, thank you for reminding us all about what youth want an need from us as caring adults!
    I could not help but see the direct correlation between your 5 points and the Youth Program Quality indicators (Weikart Center)
    we use in assessing youth programs in 4-H programs statewide.
    Youth are so wise, and our best teachers!

  8. Your blog reminded me not only of the great contributions made by the smallest or youngest members of our community, but that many adults need to shift out an individual mindset. The shift from "me" to "we" needs to recognize that children and young adults are just waiting to make an impact thus increasing the strength of "our" community. These are great reminders that adults need to be active participants in creating environments where community growth is encouraged, particularly among its youngest citizens.

  9. Daryl,
    Thanks for your comments! I too think Carol Dweck's message about praising effort and helping kids learn how to "exercise their brains" and grow their "smart" are vital ones for young people to hear from many sources--teachers, youth workers, parents. I'll be curious to hear more about ways you're incorporating this in the school! So exciting to know it's happening! Do you have any advice on how you and the staff relay those "key messages?"

  10. Hello to the "anonymous" post :)
    Thanks for your kind words. You are right in that the reminder to listen and pay attention is critical for us is too easy to get caught up in all the "work" there is to be done and miss the important moments of building connections!

  11. Ann,
    Thanks for that reference to the youth program quality indicators from Weikart! Which of those resonated most for you upon reading my post?
    It inspires me to know how really listening to young people and their needs and wants is so often reflected in our fields' research! Do you ever make a note of that when talking with teens? I sometimes do that (let them know that some research validates what they have just said or done or asked about) and it's great to see how their eyes light up and they get curious about the research! I always read that reaction as a way that I've validated their power and importance and their ability to contribute! I love that!
    Ann, thanks for your thoughts!

  12. Michael,
    Thanks for the eloquent way you stated it: "...adults need to be active participants in creating environments where community growth is encouraged, particularly among its youngest citizens."
    Sociologist Meg Wheatley spoke about leadership so beautifully when she led the Howland Symposium for the Center several years ago. To paraphrase her comment, she said: "A leader is anyone who steps up to serve." I agree it is so vital that we practice and preach that message! In Meg's 12 Principles for supporting healthy community, her first one, (a la Earl Reum) is "People support what they help create." What have been your most effective strategies for engaging people of all ages in the "creation" of community?

  13. Thanks Anne! These are great strategies to implement in the classroom. As a future educator, it is necessary for me to know how to praise effort and take a genuine interest in the lives of my students. By using these techniques, I will be better prepared to interact with students in a manner that stimulates personal growth and development.

  14. If today was your first day, what would you do? If today was your last day, what would you do?

  15. Dan,
    I'm glad the post had some useful tools that you can see implementing in the classroom! We get so used to telling people "good job" when it would be so much more helpful to be specific as to what the effort was, or what the attitude was, that helped that young person do a good job! And yes, paying attention to the lives of those we teach or work with is such a critical piece of positive youth development! Thanks for your post!

  16. Jennifer,
    Those 2 questions, together, make me stop and pause! How did you answer them? I appreciate your short post that will give all of us long, thoughtful moments!

  17. Anne:
    I loved this "They shut their mouth and try to lead me to the answers by asking questions, not telling me what to do." Kids are so smart.
    This comment resonated with what I've learned from the SciGirls Seven on gender-equitable approaches to science instruction.
    Thank you for your post!

  18. What great thoughts and a stimulation to remember to listen, see and ask. I have recently been exploring 'Positive Psychology'. I have much to learn and practice. It is amazing how fast one sees results when you practice what you have written about here as well what 'positive Pshycology' suggests.

  19. Laura,
    thanks for your post and reference to the SciGirls materials. I'm wondering which elements most resonated with you from their gender equity resources? I agree that the wisdom of approaching science learning (and all learning) with this lens is critical. thank you!

  20. Barb,
    Thanks for your comment! I'm not familiar with Positive Psychology...what have you been learning and practicing? can you share a reference/website? I have had a similar reaction to using what Carol Dweck's work describes...the results you can see in young people give some immediate validation of how it works! Look forward to more conversation on this!

  21. Anne,
    Great Article! It reminds me of Alfred Adler's work with parents to "Encourage" rather than "Praise"
    Keep up the blog! I love all the links to more resources!

  22. Anne,
    Thank you for the great reminders - someplace between wonder and capturing a teenager's heart for the bigger picture is the sweetest spot from which to teach! Letting kids lead can be so hard (most teachers love their well-laid plans!), but letting kids ask the questions, be real about their lives, and sit with their thoughts for a while is where the true magic happens! Such good things to ponder!!

  23. Christa,
    Thanks for your reference to Adler's work! It is always relevant and timely. I'll enjoy comparing and contrasting his work and Dweck's...Do you see both similarities and differences? I 'd love to talk about ideas for continuing to "share" these concepts with parents, coaches, others...!

  24. Jen,
    I would enjoy hearing you say more about ways to let kids lead in the classroom/school...formal settings...I marvel at the ways you do that --and I have seen it happen! I think it is far harder in a formal educational setting than in the non-formal ed. settings in which I work...what are some of your strategies? Thanks for your post!

  25. Ann,
    LOVED the post! I was reading it shaking my head saying, "that's a good idea, THAT's a good idea!" the whole time. I really appreciated your comments about paying attention and motivation. I want to pay more attention to the social and nonverbal actions that students take during the day in order to keep them positively motivated and build resistance to resiliance in their schooling. That was a great kick in the pants for me. I also really appreciated that you quoted Ferris Bueller. LOVE IT!! Great post!

  26. Andy,
    Thank you for your comments! I'm glad to know a few of the ideas were motivating to you! I agree that each adult in a child's life is critical in building those social-emotional skills. What have you observed in your classroom as you've paid attention to supporting that growth-mindset? I will love to hear about the things you are trying! Thanks for the post!

  27. Really enjoyed your blog and ideas about wonder. Cultivating our own sense of wonder as adults can sometimes be very challenging. The "Gratitude" time lapse will serve as a reminder for me to enjoy the small moments. Thank YOU!

  28. casetta da giardino in legno - casette italiaMarch 4, 2014 at 10:28 PM

    the to lear the most from kids is playing with them...and both will learn.
    See these nice games:

  29. Casette,
    Thanks for your post and link to resources! I agree both youth and adults learn while playing together!

  30. Great Work Anne!!
    Love the passion you have for cause.


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