Distractible, creative, highly sensitive, empathetic. Those words describe my son and some of his greatest gifts, and some of those words also describe why he struggles in school. His sensitivity and creativity mean he’s highly tuned to the sensory input around him, but sometimes he has a hard time getting things finished because those same traits can also mean distractibility. He’s not always able to filter out the noise and the over-stimulating environment of a noisy classroom, so it’s not uncommon to find him just ‘checking out’—in his head, distracted, and not getting too much work done. And lately, he hasn’t been very motivated to even go to school. I know my son is not alone. This is increasingly common.
Some parents seek medical help in an effort to help their children become more focused and do better in school, however, here’s what I’ve noticed about my son. When he is inspired to do something (e.g., make some sushi), he can spend 2 hours in the kitchen—completely focused and organized. He can gather the ingredients he needs, generate creative solutions for substitutions when something is missing, and create a magnificent meal. And when he feels intrinsically motivated to do a project at school, he can sit down in a quiet place and create or produce a substantial project in a short period of time—which was initially quite surprising to me. So is there a lack of focus? Or is the seeming lack of focus a result of boredom or no intrinsic motivation to do the tasks being asked of him? Is it in part because he’s overwhelmed in the noisy environment? Or, is it a result of spending hours, day after day, trying to force himself to do too many things in his day that are utterly meaningless to him?
A word about perspective. Medicating your child may feel like the best solution for some parents, but not for others, and I believe each parent’s best choice is the one that feels right for them. I value authenticity and believe we all have our own path in life, and I expect there are circumstances a lot different than mine that may require medication. Furthermore, I understand that it’s hard (painful, even) to watch your child struggle and feel the angst of wanting to fit in and be the same as others. I have been there. So, if supporting your child for a short while or even indefinitely with medications feels right for you, then I say ‘go for it’. If it feels wrong for you like it does for me, I believe we have options, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Preparing for the Future
The purpose of going to school is supposedly to prepare us for adulthood and working, but is the education really doing that for these children? Daniel Pink[i] shows us that the traits of creativity and intrinsic motivation will prepare people for success in the 21st century. And by ‘success’, I mean:
- desired as employees by organizations and businesses that are thriving and on the leading edge, because their creativity leads to innovation and their intrinsic motivation gives them endless energy and passion to contribute to the company’s purpose,
- capable of working independently as entrepreneurs, artists or inventors, and making unique contributions through their work
- able to make their lives and work personally fulfilling as they use their gifts to contribute to the world.
In short, people with these traits will have lots of choices when seeking a fulfilling life. I don’t believe that teaching them to seek rewards (grades) is going to help them be more successful in life. In fact, Pink shows clearly that working solely for external motivators (e.g., grades, rewards) is passé and breeds underachievement and lack of motivation; intrinsic motivation (which is dependent on autonomy, mastery and purpose) breeds creativity and is infinitely energizing. No more slacking workers who are just doing the bare minimum, and only when someone is looking or there’s a reward. When we are inspired, we have endless energy to pursue what we are passionate about. On the other hand, forcing ourselves to do endless tasks that feel meaningless dulls the senses, bores us and I believe it actually fosters a disconnect from ourselves that can contribute to depression—something worth thinking about given our rising rate of depression in youth.
If creativity (which often comes with some distractibility), high sensitivity and empathy are gifts, then wouldn’t it be better for the school system to adjust to support these children to learn in a way that works for them without having to be medicated? These are the gifts that can help our children to be incredibly successful as adults and serve the world, not to mention the fact that it’s just who they are.
If the whole purpose of going to school is supposed to be to learn skills for making your contribution to the world, then we need to change the school system to better meet the learning needs of this segment of our child population, not medicate the children to help them ‘succeed’ in the school system.
Changing the System
I don’t have all of the answer for how to change the system, but here’s what I know for sure.
- Intrinsic motivation is essential, and rewards of any kind—grades, candy, treats for accomplishing things, are highly detrimental to intrinsic motivation and need to be eliminated. The research on the impact of rewards on intrinsic motivation is robust and has been replicated over and over for the past 40 years.[ii] Intrinsic motivation comes from an inspired place within us—either because we’re inspired to do an activity, or because we make a conscious decision to do some mundane or unpleasant tasks in order to reach a long-term goal that feels meaningful and important to us. Somehow we need to get more meaningfulness into the work our children are doing at school, in a way that connects them with their everyday lives and innate curiosity, and leave behind more of the disconnected ‘just do this because it’s in the curriculum’.
- Empathy, creativity, and connection to oneself and one’s own inner voice need to be the highest priority, and productivity secondary. I am not saying that productivity isn’t important, but it needs to be in service of a higher goal, and we can teach our children how to produce something that is congruent with their goals while they remain connected to their creativity. Supporting our children to develop these abilities not only turns them into the type of citizens we want, but it helps them to live authentic lives and use their gifts to contribute something meaningful to the world.
- When you’re busy trying to figure out what you should do, you have less mental and emotional space to figure out what you’d actually like to do. When productivity and getting good grades, and possibly pleasing the teacher, are the highest priority, which I believe they are in our current system, there is no support for our children to listen and hear their inner voice. The voice that speaks quietly, the one from your heart. And further, if your child really struggles to fit into the current education system, the entire experience can become associated with anxiety, and that definitely cuts you off from your heart and knowing your innermost desires, and that’s the source of our intrinsic motivation. And if that happens, I would ask myself—what is the point of going to school?
You might be thinking—“she should be homeschooling”, and I confess, I have the philosophy of a homeschooling parent. But here’s the thing. My son wants to go to school. And because I know how valuable learning to listen to your inner voice is, we are trying to make it work. There must be something that he needs from that environment, social or otherwise. And as I mentioned earlier, this issue extends far beyond my family. There are many children for whom the current education system is not working very well.
Supporting Your Child
These traits are assets, not problems, and they’re part of who are children are. We can support our children by asking ourselves:
- What can we do as parents—to support our children to navigate the system and maintain their own personal integrity as human beings and work constructively with their gifts and challenges (as opposed to splitting off from or disowning a part of themselves because the trait has been labelled as a ‘problem’)?
- How can I teach my child to live with both the distractibility and the creativity that are a part of him—love both of those aspects of himself, and be compassionate with himself when they cause him to have everyday challenges?
- What can we as parents do support teachers, principals and school boards, many of whom know the system needs changing—to change the system to serve this large population of children?
- How can I talk with his teachers in a way that garners their support and collaboration for the strategies I’m using?
I want my son to be intrinsically motivated and engaged in his life and learning, not disconnected and unmotivated.
Education expert Sir Ken Robinson[iii] is calling for education reform—personalization of education and elimination of standardized testing. I believe this would go a long ways towards improving education for this segment of our student population, while continuing to meet the needs of the students who are doing well in the system. More personalization and less standardization would provide students with more opportunity to engage in learning in a way that is meaningful for them—which fosters intrinsic motivation.
Lastly, I am choosing to be optimistic. I believe there is an openness to change, and I believe that if we as parents begin to be more vocal about wanting to see changes NOW, and support the teachers and principals who are beginning to make changes, our children will be better served sooner than later.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. How can we support our children? What changes to the education system would help your child, or someone you know? Please leave your comments, stories or questions below.
[i] See Daniel H. Pink’s book, DRiVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009); New York, New York: Riverhead Books. See also Daniel Pink’s TED Talk called “The Puzzle of Motivation” (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en)
[ii] See Daniel H. Pink, DRiVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, (2000), Contemporary Educational Psychology 25(54-67) and also online at http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_IntExtDefs.pdf; Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plan$, A’s, Praise, and other Bribes, (1999), New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
[iii] See Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity” (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en) and also his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (2009); New York, New York: Penguin Books.