Chapter 3 of Mindset had me thinking a lot about independence and our kiddos with intellectual disabilities. While the book talked a lot about academic tasks I found myself thinking about the little tasks that our kids do or don't do day in and day out.
Dweck writes about the risks of praising children and saying that they are smart instead of praising them for how hard they work or what they do after they fail at a task. When you apply that to our kiddos with intellectual disabilities I think you can start to consider telling a child they are smart is about the same as simply doing a task for the child.
When we put on a coat for one of our students we are telling them that they can't do it as well as we can. This is particularly worse when we tell them what a big boy or big girl they are. When we don't even give them the opportunity to do it themselves they have no idea that they are even expected to do it themselves. Why would they? We call it learned helplessness- but that somehow implies that they sit there and fake not being able to do a task. That's often not true- it's not that they are faking it- it is that they honestly have no idea that there is the possibility they can do it themselves. They may fumble with a zipper and then we take over for them and again they've never learned to problem solve or learned how to fail. What do you do if you don't get the zipper right the first time? What about the second time? How do you deal with frustration?
Last year I had a student who had an accident in school. This was rare and he became very upset and he asked for his father to come get him. When we finally realized that the only reason he wanted his father there was because he wanted his father to help clean him up I told him that he could do it himself.
"I can?" he gasped. "I am strong enough to do it myself?"
And he did- the whole time exclaiming, "Wow! I can clean myself all by myself! I did it! I can clean myself! By myself!"
He'd had no idea that he could do it. He didn't know what he was capable of. Never having been given the opportunity to fail at taking care of himself he'd never had the chance to succeed at it either.
I'm certainly guilty of zipping up jackets and putting on book bags. Good lord it is hard to get everyone packed up and ready for the end of the day- and at that point in the day we just want to be out of there! But sending the message that I expect my students to be able to do these things themselves- that I'll be there for them and will help them while they learn how to, but that they absolutely can do it- that's an essential life skill that's more important than finishing the math lesson we were working on.
That was a very encouraging and insightful blog post. I see the same things happening in my classroom and sometimes I think all it takes is for us to show them what to do. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the aura of learned helplessness. Students just need to be shown, it goes back to the gradual release model. Students are so accustomed to it, that they need to be gradually eased into being independent. I also agree with you about avoiding calling students "smart" all the time. It just gives them the wrong impression. What we need to do is to be encouraging and challenging at the same time. What good will it do if we just call them smart?
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