Finding Hope

by Gerilyn Semro

Hope actually does not spring eternal. Sometimes, being disappointed time after time begins to wear away at hope and confidence. In my decades of teaching, I have seen far too many children lose hope and confidence in their abilities, in their teachers, and in their schools. These students need hope. They need to feel successful. They need a reason to get up, dust themselves off, and try again. This takes patience and support but most importantly, individual earned success. They have to feel it to believe it.

Often the first instinct as a parent or teacher of a struggling child is to do a quick fix to help their self-esteem. Enthusiastic and well-intended compliments are common. However, false or inflated praise can actually be damaging. In one study, Eddie Brummelman and his colleagues analyzed how inflated praise affected children’s self-esteem. Not surprisingly, children with low levels of self-esteem are often given more inflated praise. This study found that rather than increasing self-esteem, inflated praise predicted lower self esteem in children over time. There is an insightful quote regarding praise – “Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines— rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.” (H. Ginott, 1965, p. 39)  

So what to do for the struggling student who is lacking confidence? There are multiple studies which demonstrate how important self-esteem is for academic success. In one study, it was found that “self-esteem is one of the key factors in affecting an individual’s academic performance”. Lower self-esteem and self-confidence can chip away at mistake tolerance, and the struggling student’s progress is further hindered. So what can we do? What is the next step beyond praising a struggling student to help them feel like they can succeed? They need to experience it. They need to know it for themselves. They need hope.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be at Horizon Academy where our curriculum is diagnostic and prescriptive for each student. Some initial success is built-in because the instruction is at each individual’s level, rather than a broad lesson directed at a significant range of skills and abilities. Independent level of success is in the 90%-100% range. Instructional level is 80%-90%, and frustrational level is less than 80%. As a teacher, I can scaffold academic risk taking behavior, beginning with simpler and achievable tasks and building towards more challenging academic experiences. In my experiences, and based on current published evidence, I feel that there are three important components to help a struggling student “reboot” their sense of hope.  

First of all, successful experiences have a significant role in predicting levels of confidence in students. A cycle is created with individual earned success. The child is successful at a task, feels more confident, is more willing to take risks and make mistakes in their learning. This same child finds more success in those tasks, and the cycle continues and builds. When a student has confidence, he or she tends to initiate new activities more readily, work harder, and continue trying longer (Schunk & Miller, 2002). Just as chronic academic struggles reduce confidence and thus, tolerance for making mistakes (an essential aspect of learning), academic success can build those back.  

Second, encouragement is also an important contributor to student confidence. Encouragement is not the same as praise, “You are so smart!”. Rather encouragement is specific and genuine  feedback, “I can see how hard you are working! You are reading v-e syllables so much better!” or “If you continue to practice your six’s multiplication facts, I know you will learn them all!”.  Encouragement is an effective means of building the student’s confidence in their attempts and effort during the process, not just after they succeed.

Lastly, mistakes must be valued as an essential part of learning. Students should be rewarded for risk taking in academics, such as trying harder (real or perceived) problems or practicing new strategies. Grades and feedback must not be solely based on the end result, but rather the learning process and effort on the road to the end goal. In many sports competitions, participants are rewarded with higher scores for attempting more difficult and challenging efforts, even if with less than perfect outcomes. The classroom must consistently demonstrate this same appreciation of and respect for the risk taking and effort of working towards higher goals. To me, hope isn’t found at the end of the journey. It is not at the finish line, after you have reached your goals.   Hope enables you to begin the journey and stay the course. Our students need hope.