Empowering our youngsters to trust themselves

Over the last few days I have been planning a multi-day trip to hike Mt. Washington in New Hampshire with my three children. The mountain is one of the tougher, if not toughest, hikes in the Northeast, primarily because of weather that can change at a moments notice. Two years ago I hiked the same trail (Tuckerman’s Ravine) with my oldest son who was ten years old, and the trip was his greatest physical challenge to date. Unlike the upcoming trip which I am splitting up into multiple days, the hike two years ago was a full day event. It was also one of the proudest moments I have had as a father, and is one example of how sometimes we just need to stop trying to control everything and empower our youngsters to trust themselves.

We had driven up from Massachusetts that morning and were on the trail by 7:30 am. Steadily we made our way up the Ravine trail and we were on the summit by about 1:30 pm. Overall the weather was very good on the ascent. We ate lunch at the summit restaurant and began our descent at about 2:30 pm. Of course, in perfect Mt. Washington style, the weather had turned during the time we were resting for the trip down. A wind that had hovered around 20 mph above the treeline on our ascent, had picked up to 50 mph with gusts up to about 60 mph. Clouds had descended around the summit and the visibility was only about 10 feet. As every experienced mountain climber will tell you, it isn’t the trip up, but the trip down that makes or breaks your experience.

My son, who minutes earlier was feeling great about making it to the top, was now beginning to feel the post-rest tightness in his legs that had yet to work itself out. The wind and visibility tested his nerves, and he began to move more slowly. His worry and physical discomfort began to turn to complaints. My first instincts led me to encourage him to keep going:

“You can do it!”
“Don’t think about the pain.”
“One step at a time.”

Being the cheerleader did not work, and I began to worry that my son was going to just stop walking, and that our hike was going to turn into an epic descent (not much different to the descent in the dark that I had as a 10 year old down Mt. Washington, when the leader of my group took the wrong trail down).

With the wind blowing I turned to my son and in my best serious, but not worried, voice I said something to the effect of, “I need you to listen to me. We will be ok, but I can’t carry you down this mountain. Only you can get yourself down. You need to put all of your effort into thinking about what you need to do.” What blew me away was that from that moment on something clicked in my son’s thinking, and he stopped complaining. His pace didn’t pick up, but I could see the focus he had on making it down the summit talus. It took us a couple of hours of slow touch and go, but when we made it back into the Ravine the wind died down and my son’s spirit brightened as our trek down became much easier.

That near two hours on the talus are very memorable and proud moments for me. In the face of fear and frustration my son found an internal strength to make his way down. Although I didn’t know it at the time (I was starting to panic myself and was trying anything I could think of), through my short little talk I had empowered my son to trust in himself and his own abilities.

It is exactly this type of empowerment that skillful teachers can turn to when all hell breaks loose in the classroom or when students’ fear and frustration prevents them from being successful at school. Empower your students to trust in themselves. Trust that your students have the internal resolve to do their best. What are some ways that we can empower students to trust themselves towards doing their best?

  1. Tell a student how proud you are of something they did, even if it is a small thing.
  2. Let an unruly class know that things are not working and entrust them with finding solutions so that their best selves can show through.
  3. Recognize when a student is frustrated or worried about school, or a situation at home, and let them know that you empathize.
  4. Help students make their own choices within the curriculum.
  5. Make sure students have opportunities to express their opinions within the classroom and the wider school community.

These are just a few examples. What are your experiences with empowering students to trust themselves?

To finish I want to share a metaphor that a colleague of mine has used in the past about students and their progress through school. It follows along with the mountain motif of this post. At school our goal is that all students will make it to the top of the mountain, but how they get there will vary. Some will walk up. Some will run. Others we will need to drive up the mountain, while others we may need to drag into the car. Some will get lost along the way, while others will take a rest in a tree for a while to ponder the landscape. As long as they are on the mountain and have not fallen off, they will all make it up.

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