In Civil Air Patrol, a youth organization I used to volunteer with, teens are teachings classes by age 13, leading staff meetings by 14, participating in search and rescue missions by 15, and flying an airplane – a real one – all by themselves (yes, no instructor on board) – by age 16.
Civil Air Patrol has a very deliberate way of giving teens the confidence to do these types of things, and that’s what I’d like to share with you. What if your teens could actually be the ones teaching classes, leading discussions, organizing activities, and generally assuming more leadership roles? Obviously, it would offload a lot of your work as a youth leader, which is good for you, but it also would give the teens themselves a greater sense of responsibility, dedication, and belongingness to the group. This can only help your organization.
So what’s the secret? How can you instill a sense of confidence in your students? How can you convince them that they can do things that they themselves did not think they were able to do? It’s actually pretty straightforward.
Step 1: Give them a job at the edge of their comfort zone
When you’re learning the piano, you don’t progress if you only play songs that are easy for you. You only learn if you are constantly being challenged. Piano teachers have to choose pieces that are difficult for the student, but not so difficult that the student gets frustrated. That’s what you’re trying to do here.
It has to be a task that is meaningful, something you know that they can do with effort, even if they don’t know it themselves. Maybe have them teach a short class. If they’ve already done that, put them in charge of organizing classes and being a mentor to other students who are teaching classes. Put them in charge of a small project, such as organizing your upcoming Parent Information Night, perhaps. Or maybe even something as simple as putting them in charge of welcoming new guests to your meeting.
Step 2: Get out of their way
Piano teachers who provide too many crutches do a disservice to their students. I’ve heard of teachers who will record the song for students so they know how it is supposed to sound. As a result, the student never learns how to count rhythms. Or they will write the names of the notes above the sheet music. Which makes the student’s job easier, but of course they never learn how to read music that way.
But the other thing you’re taking away when you do too much work for the student is this: The student is never able to look back on their own accomplishments and say, “Look what I did!” Instead, they’ll say: “I only did this because my teacher helped me.”
The “look what I did!” moment in the mind of the student is the most essential part in building confidence. Don’t take this away by doing the work for them or getting in their way. Let them make mistakes.
In fact, in students who lack confidence (either in general or for a specific skill), the main reason is that they were never allowed to do something for themselves and see that they could actually do it.
Step 3: Provide Constructive Criticism
When praising students, avoid saying things like, “you’re good at that”, “you have natural talent”, and “you’re smart”. Instead, say things like, “you put a lot of effort toward that” and “your hard work paid off”. Studies have shown that when teachers attribute students’ success to a natural ability, the students don’t try hard at more difficult tasks. They think that things should come easy to them. But when students understand that success comes as a result of their own hard work and effort, they are not only more resilient, but also more successful in the long run.
In other words, avoid the trap of trying to build up everyone’s self-esteem by telling them how good they are. In your praise, make it clear that the student accomplished something, all by themselves, as a result of their own effort.
With all of this emphasis on letting students do things themselves, I don’t want to completely miss the point of coaching. Sometimes, while a student is working on a task, you do need to provide some coaching. It’s great to let students do things on their own, but if they’re clearly heading in completely the wrong direction, it’s perfectly OK for you to step in and make corrections. Letting them do things the wrong way isn’t helping them. Just make sure that you’re not doing the work for them, and that you’re not micromanaging.
Step 4: Repeat
Now that the student has seen that they can do something difficult on their own, repeat the entire process. Choose a task that’s slightly more difficult to challenge them even more.
Step 5: What’s Next
If you do this enough times, the student won’t need you anymore, which of course was your goal from the beginning. The student will have had so much experience challenging themselves and seeing that they can succeed with effort, that they will figure out on their own that they don’t need a teacher to challenge them any more. Of course this doesn’t happen over night; it takes years to reach this point.
They will be able to see that with any challenge, given enough effort, they will succeed. They won’t need a teacher to push them anymore but will be able to push themselves. If you’re successful, the student won’t only build confidence but will also be set up for a lifelong quest of personal growth.
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