Strong Hands Climbing a Rope

Lately, I’ve been asking the same old series of questions to the teenagers with whom I work.

Do you have any late assignments that haven’t been turned in yet? (Shrug. Pause. English and Math.)

Let’s tackle English first. What got in the way of doing it? (I dunno).

Think about it a sec. There must be something that kept you from doing it? (Shrug. Pause. Finally: lost my textbook).

Ahhhhhh. The Case of the Lost Textbook. Anything else getting in the way? (Shrug. Pause. Pause. Pause. I don’t understand what to do).

Ohhhhhh. That’s tough. The Unclear Assignment Conundrum. Two problems; we’ll need to find two solutions.

Even though it works (sort of), I’m getting tired of this line of questioning. No one wants to talk about what they’re not doing well.

I’m an academic coach. Kids come to me when they’re falling behind because of their time management, organization, or inefficient study strategies. It’s so easy to fall into problem solving mode with them. In fact, I find it satisfying to sleuth through the shoulder shrugs and inarticulate grunts, until I unearth the suddenly obvious obstruction that’s been stalling their success.

In the above scenario I uncovered two key skills that my client needed help building: (1) how to complete an assignment when he’d lost the tools he needed and (2) how to clarify an assignment when he doesn’t understand what to do.

These might seem like obvious skills to you and I, but kids who suffer from executive functioning deficits just get overwhelmed when they encounter a roadblock. The executive centers of the brain help people organize, prioritize, time manage, and more. People who have deficits in these neuropathways have to work extra hard to manage themselves and their things in order to achieve a goal.

Problem Solving Doesn’t Always Work.

Some kids resist the problem solving approach. They don’t want to talk about their deficits; who wants to rehash all the bad grades, disorganized backpacks, and dropped assignments?

Take Griffin, for example. Griffin resisted my help last year. He just did NOT want to be a problem that needed solving. He wanted to just chill. Cruise through. Do anything but work.

No, that’s not exactly true. I think he *wanted* to work hard (thought he’d never say it). But his brain was overwhelmed by the constant barrage of expectations from eight teachers.

The biggest problem: Griffin often did the work but then lost it before he turned it in. I remember one in particular that he redid three times before it finally made it to the teacher. This kid was working hard; he just couldn’t follow through.

From “What Went Wrong?” to “What’s Going Right?”

This year, I’ve decided to take a whole new approach with Griffin. I no longer walk him through questioning that starts with “What went wrong?” and ends with “What could you do differently next time?”

Instead, I’m noticing that he’s doing a few things really well. Like, over the last week he only had two late assignments.  This is a miracle for Griffin.

“Wow! What are you doing that’s working out so well?” I asked him.

He was thrown off. Confused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re obviously doing something right.  Your work is getting turned in. You seem pretty happy. What choices are you making that are causing these great results?”

I’ve asked this question two weeks in a row now.  Griffin is totally stumped by it. He has no idea what choices he’s making, much less what’s working for him. As far as he’s concerned, “I’m in the flow this year, that’s all.”

I perseverated. “You must be doing something right. Because you’re the one responsible for creating the flow. You did it by making choices. What are those choices? Let’s find out.”

It took all session, but we finally discovered a helpful list:

  • He takes a decent break before he starts his homework.
  • He’s pretty good at not letting Facebook distract him once he gets started.
  • He plays a sport and is getting exercise.
  • He checks his teachers’ web pages daily for the assignments.
  • He’s using Google Docs for all his papers.
  • He’s consistent with his self-designed organization system.

Phew! Now that we know what he’s doing well, Griffin can focus on making these choices consistently. In other words, do more of what is already working. Or at the very least, keep up the good work!

Appreciative Inquiry Shifts the Conversation

Although I’m not trained in appreciative inquiry, I’m pretty sure that my new process is resonates with the AI folks. (No, not artificial intelligence. I’m talking about the authentic intelligence that comes when we focus on the good).

From what little I’ve read, AI (the appreciative inquiry kind) is the art and practice of asking questions that help strengthen people’s capacity to identify and heighten their positive potential (this definition compiled from this website). It is about searching for the best in people right now, and helping them use that information to build a plan for an even better future.

I’m inspired by this approach.  I want to dedicate this school year to helping kids notice what is already good in their process and approach, and how they can create more of what’s working.

There are two reasons why I anticipate that the AI approach will initially be challenging: (1) Most educators (myself included) habitually look for what’s wrong in our students, so we can “correct” it,  and (2) Students are so used to this approach that they clam up when asked to think differently.

We’ll all need to build new inquiry habits.

Discover. Dream. Design. Destiny.

Here’s a summary of the AI process that I hope to experiment with this school year:

1. Discover the “best of what is” –  inquire about what is working well
2. Dream “what might be”  –  discuss the possibilities for improvement
3. Design “what could be”   –  design the changes to be implemented
4. Create a Destiny based on “what will be” and let students participate in creating this for themselves.  (Kinni, 2003, quoted in Exploring Appreciative Inquiry)

Progress reports just came out yesterday at the school where I coach. Instead of focusing on the “bad” grades, I’m looking forward to getting the kids to discover what’s working well in their classes; dream about what could be improved by the next progress report; and design changes for how they can practically make this happen.

More reflections to come! Thanks for reading to the end of this longer-than-usual entry. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts about focusing on the good, Appreciative Inquiry, or academic successes/conundrums with the teens you know!