My family spent some time over the holidays skiing with several other families. The children in our group ranged from 8 to 13 years and did a remarkable job both getting along and sticking together as they skied. We’ve all skied together over the years. They’re use to the drill – they look out for each other and ski where the least experienced skier is comfortable. As I tried to keep up with them and marveled at how some out-ski me and other adults, I found myself thinking about what it takes to be a competent young skier. It’s truly no small accomplishment to cruise down a green or blue (or black!) trail when you are less than 100 pounds! Consider a few of the basics skills one needs in order to ski with relative success:
- endurance to prepare oneself for the outing and a day on the slopes
- physical strength and coordination
- the ability to focus both on what is immediately in front of you and what lies ahead down the mountain (some would argue this is physically impossible for those with a not-fully-developed frontal lobe)
- the ability to coordinate one’s own movements while being aware of others moving (often rapidly!) around you
- the ability to coordinate a range of movements across the midline and across the slope combined with the ability to adjust your movements and strategies to the conditions, terrain and movement of others.
As I watched our skiers and other children skiing, I got to thinking about the students I have known who have been accomplished skiers (or a competitor in any sport) for their age, some of whom were carving turns ahead of me. They all have a few things in common:
- many are the movers and shakers in the classroom – you know, the kids that wiggle, move, fidget – often within what is truly developmentally appropriate but nonetheless frustrating to unwitting adults
- kids who learn best through kinesthetic mode – they learn by doing, by touching, by trying over and over again (this is at the heart of skiing and most sports)
- kids who are naturally inclined to sports and who pick up new moves by analyzing others and translating what they see into their own repertoire
- persistent kids who try different solutions, especially when faced with challenges
- some of these are kids who teachers and parents are watching to see if there are learning issues or who already have diagnosed learning issues
It’s this last observation that makes me the most impressed with young skiers – or really, any young athlete. How many times have we seen a kid who struggles in school and/or works with such determination in the classroom, but still just doesn’t love school? Are these the kids who are constantly reminded to control him/herself or to remember what comes next? Often, it’s those same kids who then move gracefully, smoothly and with agility on the sports field or down a slope with focus and determination which defies the behaviors seen in the classroom? I wonder how many competitive athletes (or their parents) would report that school was not a piece of cake for them? Debbie Phelps has brought their family’s experience to light in recent months while her son, Michael, has become an international role model for kids who excel in their chosen sport but had a tough time in school. Debbie Phelps knew, as a teacher and a mom, that what her child needed was scaffolding to complete assignments and manage schoolwork, a parent advocate (not friend) who worked with teachers and physicians to make the best choices for her son, and the consistent routine and boundaries which allowed Michael to mature and develop his focus on things he enjoyed and excelled. Most of us will not end up the parent of an Olympic super-star, but even those parents of the wigglers, may find their children accomplish amazing feats and find great success in their chosen field. There is truly hope for some of us who think, “will my kid ever sit still? listen? pay attention?
Learning a sport like skiing or soccer or gymnastics or anything else – is about persistence, confidence and mastery. School is also about persistence, confidence, and mastery. But it’s also about a sense of belonging (does my teacher know I love to ski?), significance (it matters that I am in class today) and fun (yeah, it can be a lot of work, but we do get to do great science experiments). Too often, the content and approach in schools fail to engage kids in the belonging and significance parts, which yields no fun, no risk taking. Without a sense of purpose and place, the persistence and risk taking stagnate and true learning comes to a grinding halt. That’s no fun for anyone and certainly fails to provide opportunities for confidence and mastery. For some, the result is the fidgety or disengaged behavior which causes angst for all. When adults are willing and able to set clear expectations, non-negotiable boundaries, and provide encouragement and positive feedback on activities which capture a learner’s attention, these kids often can demonstrate focus and determination, just as they do on the ski slopes, in the pool, or on the soccer field.
How does your child view school? Do they feel a part of a community? Do they feel they play an integral role that community? Is it fun, all, if not most of the time? Think about activities you child chooses to do and does well – I bet they feel welcome and important when they walk into karate. Do they have a ball and finish exhausted and satisfied at the end of dance class? Do they show more persistence and confidence in those settings than they do in school? Offer positive feed back for those things they do well. If your child struggles in school, look for parallels between their favorite actives and school. What strategies can they adapt from their sport to the classroom? Be explicit and direct when you affirm their strengths and talk together about how those strengths can serve them well in school. Help your child find their passion outside of school. In the classroom, take time to get to know your learners as whole and competent human beings – inquire about their interests and get them talking about why they are passionate about what they do. I bet you’ll see strengths they can use in meaningful ways in class.
School has resumed so days on the slopes are limited, but any time I see a lift ticket, I’m sure to ask about it. Ditto for a new karate belt, dance recital chatter, basketball jersey. Knowing our kids outside the school goes a long way in understanding the person who walks into the classroom each day and knowing how to best help her be the best learner she can be!