BY Meredith Flory

As a military spouse, I’ve heard the term “resiliency” in reference to resources on post that help soldiers and families develop the skills needed to cope with the challenges of military life. Last year my husband went through the Master Resiliency Training Course in order to learn how to lead other soldiers to resiliency, and he often came home discussing ideas that could be helpful at work and home. One thing that astonished him was the idea of negativity biases—how we react more strongly and quickly to negative things than positive things—and how easily we pass our own negative attitudes to our children. I realized as an educator and a parent how important resiliency and positive thinking might be to education, and our journey to literacy. 

My husband and I previously taught high school, and one of our former colleagues was Heather Carlson-Jaquez, a teacher and mother we both admire. Heather is now an educational psychologist, studying, teaching and researching at Virginia Commonwealth University. I shared with her that I wanted to write about how being mindful of the way we talk to and with our kids about reading can impact their education, and discovered that this is the area her research covers. She shared with me her research in the context of teaching and parenting, uncovering some simple ways we can change how we encourage our children to learn. 

How We Talk About Learning

We need to remember that mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and how we talk about struggles to our children affects their behavior. Heather explains that how “students interpret challenges” affects their reactions. For example, she shared, “if mistakes are looked at as bad and the child is chastised for them then they are more likely to adopt maladaptive behaviors such as avoiding the task in the future and cheating. Conversely, if mistakes are looked at as a learning opportunity then children will be more resilient in the face of failure and will be more likely to be driven to master the task.” Heather encouraged that, “parents should never put a child down for mistakes, failures or struggles. Instead they should work patiently with the child to send the message that everyone makes mistakes and that they believe that if the child works hard then they can accomplish their goals.” 

If we praise innate qualities instead of work, our children can become frustrated when they get feedback opposite of our praise. Heather wrote how this has worked for her as her daughter Chloe has been struggling learning to cartwheel. “I never praised her for being good at gymnastics when she was learning to do a summersault, but if I had then she would be experiencing self-doubt now because she is still unable to do a cartwheel.” Instead, she praised her for working to master this earlier skill and now Chloe continues to seek out help and put in effort to learn how to cartwheel—she and her mom both have confidence this will pay off. 

For children working on literacy skills, recognize what they can already do and praise the effort they put into learning skills that are taking longer, such as new vocabulary, reading aloud or tackling difficult texts.

How to Deal with Negative Self-Talk

If a student is struggling and feeding off of the way failures are discussed by adults or peers, they may start talking negatively about themselves. As a parent, this is a chance to step back and think about how we talk about our own struggles. Heather shared, “negative self-talk is something that I’ve heard in my children quite a bit, but then I realized that they were getting the practice from me. I was horrified. When parents say ‘I’m stupid’ children learn to attribute their failures to internal factors, in this instance a lack of intelligence. When you make a mistake around your kids instead of ‘I’m stupid’ say ‘I made a mistake that I need to fix.’ When a student says ‘I’m never going to get it’ have them repeat ‘I can and I will!’ And of course be sure to communicate to the child that you believe that they can and they will too.”  

In my husband’s class, one of the strategies given was to “hunt the good stuff,” forcing yourself to think about the positives of a challenging situation. Gratitude is difficult, but making a habit of helping your children think through what they enjoy about school and sharing what is making you happy day-to-day can increase positive talk in your family.

Motivating to Accomplish Difficult Tasks

If your child is continually being asked to work above their level without the tools to catch-up, it may be time to create a better plan with teachers. Heather advised planning experiences that allow the children to feel successful and finding books and activities the child can relate to. Heather and other educators I’ve spoken with have addressed how this may be especially important for families that are marginalized by school culture and expectations that conflict with their day-to-day experiences. Viewing their experiences as an asset to education, rather than a deficiency, can help these students feel more invested in learning. 

While researching, I’ve worked on shifting from “easy” compliments to more thoughtful ones for my daughter. Instead of “you’re so smart,” I’m working on looking for specific skills she’s developing, such as “you are getting much better at counting because you keep practicing,” or as she’s started to show frustration in not being able to read yet, letting her know that she will be able to read one day, but that she can help me read right now by looking at the pictures and asking questions. 

In myself, I’m working on the way I see my own successes and failures as my journey, not a competition with other mothers. Working on our own resiliency may be the best tool we have in encouraging our children to learn.

Meredith Flory is an Augusta-area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.

This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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