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Being at the Helm in Uncharted Waters

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The only thing that is certain is uncertainty. We have all heard sayings like this and know that our world is unpredictable and the future sometimes hinges on a roll of the dice. How do we prepare children to flourish under these trying circumstances? Let’s start by looking at what happens in the brain when we encounter something unforeseen.

In some ways, our brains were built for unpredictable situations. Throughout our evolution, the brain was designed for functions such as surveillance and alert. As soon as something unexpected – and potentially dangerous – is detected, a brain-wide alarm sounds, sending us immediately into freeze, flight, or fight mode. The brain gets flooded by stress hormones and, at this moment, we rely entirely on instinct, not thinking.

This was essential for staying alive when we were prey; a potential meal for larger predators.

Instant alerts are good for surviving, but what about thriving? What about thriving in today’s complex and ever-changing world? 

Today’s world is vastly different to navigate. We all have the need to feel safe. Predictability and routines become the comfort blankets we wrap around ourselves. Our everyday lives demand that we plan ahead, engage in reflection and modify our actions to reach long-term goals. We ask children to reject our natural state of constant motion in favor of sitting quietly and focusing on learning content. We expect them to think critically, solve complex problems and be creative. All these processes depend on the pre-frontal cortex, part of the brain that is overwhelmed whenever we feel anxious or afraid.

So, if unchartered waters cause us to become anxious and fearful, how can we think clearly in the face of uncertainty?

The answer lies in reframing uncertainty in ways that pique curiosity and present new opportunities. We’re charged with helping children build the capacities to shift perspectives, adapt, and persevere in the face of challenges. We want children to grapple and have lofty aspirations. How is this possible when many of us have struggled with our own anxiety, stress, and trauma? How can we ensure that the next generation of children is more engaged in the types of thinking and learning that are conceptually abstract and ambiguous? We CAN do this by embarking upon a mindset makeover. A makeover that builds trusting relationships where everyone feels safe to ask questions, make mistakes, and take risks for learning.

Let’s now look at a few tools that you can use to help children build Flexible Mindsets.

  1. Nurture curiosity. So often we want to jump in and rescue children when they are perplexed, confused or mildly frustrated. We end up taking a short-cut by providing the solution instead of encouraging elaboration and further questioning. Try asking questions such as:
    • “What do you notice? What do you think about when you see (hear) this?”
    • “What have you tried so far? What else can you try?”
  2. Model ways for mistakes to be opportunities for learning and discovery. We say that we all make mistakes and that they are important for learning. However, children feel often ashamed of their errors and experience humiliation when their mistakes are public. They will engage in elaborate strategies for avoiding mistakes such as losing eye contact, not offering answers, clowning around, or acting out. Turning this pattern around involves:
    • Sharing explicitly about our own mistakes and how we have used them to learn.
    • Labeling mistakes in a positive way, starting with ourselves as a model. “Oops! I made a mistake. What could I do?” Provide 2 or 3 options for responding and explain why we made a particular choice.
    • Sharing examples of mistakes that led to something wonderful (chocolate chip cookies, Slinkys, sticky notes, etc.).
  3. Provide open-ended learning opportunities that have no clear ‘right’ answer. Life’s problems are messy. Yet much of our brainpower during childhood is spent fishing around for the ‘correct’ answer. Try setting up open-ended tasks such as:
    • What invention has most changed the world? Why?
    • Provide the opening sentence or two for a math problem. How many different questions can we think of?
    • Stephanie can’t get her new puppy to sit on demand? What should she do?
  4. Teach the value of trial and error for solving problems. The messages we send often leave children feeling that the fastest solution is always the best. We rarely afford children the time to think deeply and understand concepts thoroughly. Play around with ‘experiments’ and find fun ways for children to record each attempt and talk about what they can try next.
    • Sink or Swim – predicting which objects will float or sink
    • Flying High – making a variety of paper planes and guessing which will fly the farthest

Let’s aim for children to bet on themselves and ‘sink their teeth’ into the challenge of the unfamiliar.


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