"Auld Lang Syne" in September by John Gifford, Head of Middle School
I celebrate New Year’s Day in September. (Happy New Year!) Perhaps I have been doing school work for too long, but while others wipe their slates clean and set goals (a.k.a., “resolutions”) in January, I do so at the start of our academic year.
In late summer, I cracked a book by the brother tandem of Chip and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard is a relatively quick read. It provides a framework for anyone who has struggled to change his or her own habits or to attempt to implement change in others. As I read the opening chapter I couldn’t help but think of our work with young people.
The Middle School students who come to Nobles are a talented lot. They have exhibited the abilities to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. That does not mean, however, that they always use strategies that best support achievement. Each and every year we can count on multiple students showing certain undesirable traits. Favorite foibles are procrastination and disorganization, but there are others. For some, it is due to a true lack of understanding: they had not yet needed to develop organization skills or have not yet struggled to finish their homework. Others may have been battling with their own behaviors for a long, long time.
What the “Brothers Heath” suggest rang true with me. To attempt to sum up and simplify: The problem with changing behavior is that it is a skirmish between emotional (often short-term) desires and logical ones (linked to long-term goals). An example is that homework is taxing. The immediate desire is to iChat with a peer rather than do it. The logical side of the brain understands that success only comes through consistent effort, but that is hard to control in the face of an invitation to “chat!”
The authors make some concrete suggestions to control the emotional in pursuit of behavior change.
Point to the destination. Set goals. Articulate these New Year’s “resolutions” and measure progress towards them. I believe the adage that you often “get what you measure for.” Along the way towards the goals, make sure to highlight (and enjoy) the moments of success. This feeds the emotional part of your brain in an important way.
In addition, be intentional about scripting critical moves that will lead to desired behavior. I occasionally call this “taking the gross medicine”. An example: Your child reports that he always waits until the last moment to study for a test. Can we help him create a new strategy? What if he sets up a meeting with his teacher for a day (or two) before the test? He asks his teacher to quiz him on the test content when they meet. He will then be forced (unless he is OK looking foolish) to put in some study time earlier in the process.
This type of problem solving is not intuitive for young people. Nor is it immediately gratifying. The adults in students’ lives need to help support their change efforts. The Middle School core faculty have always been “change agents." They help students change through teaching content which makes students better writers, mathematicians and scientists. But, especially in the Middle School, they are also teaching the skills that will serve students well for a long time: organization, note taking, test preparation, etc.
The key to an adult being a good agent of change is for he or she to understand the roadblocks to change and to help script the critical moves that could lead to change. Parents need to accept and understand what the faculty see as the behaviors of their children (often behaviors not shown at home and occasionally hard to hear about). And faculty should benefit from the profound insights that parents have about their children.
All this is to serve as a reminder that our work with Middle School students is a collaborative affair. Make your child’s advisor aware of the habits that have proved challenging and might be in need of change. Feel free to describe to teachers strategies that have proven effective in the past. Especially during this time period when advisors and teachers are just getting to get to know their new students, your insights are essential—they help set the agenda as we greet the New Year.