January 29, 2015 9:54 am Helping Your Child Be A Successful Learner: Part 2
My last column described “hypothesis testing” as a mindset children need to develop to become successful learners. Hypothesis testing can be defined as learning by hands-on trial and error until understanding is acquired.
Another helpful mindset to encourage in children is risk-taking. Don’t worry. Encouraging risk-taking doesn’t mean letting your child jump off the roof, or point his skis straight downhill on his first run ever. For a young child, willingness to risk means being willing to try something he or she has not mastered: for example, trying to draw a dog for the first time, and risking that the child next to her will say, “That’s not a dog.” It might involve trying to write his name when the hands are shaky, or to build the biggest block structure in the classroom. Physical, but not really dangerous risks are going down the big slide or trying to go hand over hand on the monkey bars. Slightly older children risk by learning to ride a two-wheeler, or performing in front of a group. All of these situations involve children being willing to put themselves out there in an attempt to learn a new skill.
And following right along with risk-taking is persistence. Because more often than not, the first attempt to do something is not entirely successful. Will the child give up or keep trying? The mission of the parent or teacher is to encourage the child to stay with an activity until it is completed satisfactorily or mastered. This is an especially important mindset for pre-schoolers to develop, because in the beginning, every task is difficult. Block buildings fall dawn, jigsaw puzzles look impossible, hands slip off the monkey bars, small motor skills are still weak. If a child is encouraged to persist when the task is difficult, he or she will develop and internalize that mindset. What a great asset for later learning, whether he or she is learning to sound out words, or solve a difficult math equation, or read a complicated chapter in a history textbook. Everything is difficult on the first try; the key is to keep at it until understanding or mastery is reached.
All of these mindsets help children to become successful learners. All require considerable adult encouragement and guidance early on. Sometimes encouraging words are enough. Often more is needed — a hint, a guiding hand, an example, — or your firm grip on the bicycle seat as it wobbles down the road. If children are to develop these important mindsets for successful learning, we all have to keep trying.
Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years experience in working with young children.