It breaks my heart. They sit at my desk looking like deer in headlights: eyes wide; nostrils flaring and stubbornly, resolutely refusing to even just try. Their potential is so obvious! I know that if I could fast forward into the future these will be the star athletes, ground-breaking scientist and award-winning actresses of tomorrow but I also know that there is a great risk that these bright futures may never materialise if I can’t somehow convince to be less scared of taking that first step – to try.
Children might feel anxious about attempting challenging tasks for a variety of reasons. Some feel entirely overwhelmed by the increasing pressure put on them in academic settings and on the sport field, while others may have built up a mental block and convince themselves that they will never be able to master something that other can because their brains are simply not “built” that way.
Luckily, thanks to researchers at Stanford and Columbia Universities we know that children show improved morale and grade points when they understand that intelligence in malleable. The idea that the brain can change is called neuroplasticity and on a very basic level means that neural networks are strengthened when we repeatedly practice an activity and that these networks are pruned when we stop practising. And it turns out that even just knowing about this phenomenon made kids more keen to try. When the researchers actively taught this idea to a group of students, they performed significantly better than their peers in a control group.
When I come across children in my practice who are too scared to attempt an activity, I always explain this concept to them as follows: “The brain is more similar to a muscle than we originally thought. Thanks to science we now understand that if you practice something, even if you couldn’t do it all before you’ll eventually be able to do it. It’s a lot like weight lifting: on day one you might not be able to pick up a heavy set of weights but if you try a little everyday you will get incrementally stronger until one day when you can pick it up. The brain is the same. When it struggles it grows”. This is of course a very simple way of explaining it but it works almost every single time.
Then to bring the message home I show them this wonderful video from Brain Jump with Ned the Neuron and it almost always helps to relay their fears and gets them ready to attempt tasks that they were avoiding before – I hope this strategy work for you with your kids too!