Tag Archives: reece

Growth Mindset Lessons from a Kids Ninja Fit Class.

I’ve had the chance over the last two weeks to watch my eight year old daughter FINALLY find something that she LOVES to do:  American Ninja Warrior classes at a local gym.

It’s been a joy for me to watch because nothing else that  we’ve introduced her to — baseball, gymnastics, dance, sewing classes — has really resonated.

Now, whether she’s swinging from a set of rings into a sixteen foot cargo net that she has to climb, shimmying across a ten foot rope, or trying to get to the top of a twelve foot warped wall, she’s smiling — even if she falls a handful of times before making it on to the next obstacle.


All of this has caught me by surprise because my kid has never been persistent at learning new skills both in and beyond school.  

Instead, whether she’s learning her multiplication tables, learning to cross-stitch or learning to take a corner kick, she makes a quick decision about whether or not she’s going to “be any good” at the task — and if the answer is no, she gives up because giving up is easier to her than feeling like a failure.

She’s also constantly watching the performances of the people around her — trying to determine where she stands in comparison to her peers.  If she sees that she’s “one of the worst” at whatever task she’s trying to tackle, she goes into what I like to call “full on stall and avoidance mode”.  I remember watching her intentionally let kid after kid cut her in the batting lineup during baseball practice one day — and then celebrating like she’d won the freaking lottery when practice ended before it was ever her turn to bat.


Long story short:  My kid almost always has a fixed mindset.

But there’s nothing fixed about her mindset at Ninja Fit classes.  Instead, she takes a “not yet” approach to every new obstacle, convinced that she has what it takes to move forward even if she’s struggling in the moment. 

Here’s why:

(1). Her coach has designed obstacles that are challenging enough to interest Reece, but are not SO challenging that they feel impossible to her.

Reece and I tend to run early wherever we go.  The result is that we always arrive at Ninja Fit class as her coach is setting up the obstacle course for the day.  As I watch him, I see a master teacher in action because he is constantly adjusting the obstacles that he wants his kids to tackle.

His goal is to design tasks that aren’t ridiculously easy, but also aren’t impossible for kids to complete — and that makes all the difference for my kid.

Because the tasks aren’t ridiculously easy, Reece isn’t ever bored during class.  She WANTS to get through an obstacle because she understands that getting through an obstacle is a real accomplishment.  But because each task is carefully designed in advance to take the current strengths and weaknesses of the students in the class into account, Reece IS getting through obstacles with regularity.  Seeing real progress leaves her convinced that the work she’s being asked to do is really doable for her, too.

Can you see the lessons for classroom teachers here?

If we are going to encourage a growth mindset in our students — particularly in the hearts and minds of the kids who struggle the most in our classrooms — we have to be JUST as deliberate in our task design.  Kids won’t even begin trying if the work we are asking them to do is boring — and worse yet, they will quit believing in themselves if they are never successful.

(2). Her coach is giving her very specific suggestions about how to improve.

I think what I love the most about Reece’s Ninja Fit coach is that he gives her incredibly targeted feedback whenever she is stuck on an obstacle.  Here’s an example:  At open rig time last weekend, she was determined to get up the warped wall.  She tried and failed at least ten straight times before turning to her coach and saying, “Do you have any suggestions to help me get up the wall?”

His response:  “Try smaller steps as you hit the wall, then lean forward and reach with two hands.  The wide steps you are taking are throwing you off balance low on the wall and if you start reaching with two hands instead of one, you will send all of your body’s momentum in the direction that you want it to go.”

That level of specificity blew me away.

Because Reece is eight, I expected him to say something general like, “You are doing great!  Try a little harder and you’ll get there” simply because that kind of generic encouragement is the norm rather than the exception to the rule when adults are giving feedback to kids.  Heck, her baseball coach would say, “Good cut kid!” every time she was up at bat even though she never even came CLOSE to hitting the ball.

What blew Reece away is that she made it to the top of the warped wall a few attempts later because she’d listened to and applied her coach’s feedback.

Think about how powerful that moment was for her:  Not only did she get the exact advice that she needed to accomplish a challenging task, she learned that she could trust her coach to give her the advice that she needs to move forward.  As a result, she’s more than ready to ask for advice — and to then apply that advice — when she’s stuck on a new obstacle.

What’s the lesson for classroom teachers?  Building a growth mindset in struggling students depends on something more than encouragement.  It depends on giving students tangible strategies for improving their performance.

Do we regularly provide that kind of targeted feedback to the kids in our classrooms when they are struggling with a task?  More importantly, have we left the kids in our classrooms convinced that we have the expertise to help them to move forward?

(3). Her coach told her that he believes in her.

At the end of Reece’s first Ninja Fit class, her coach looked right at Reece and told her that he thinks she’s a natural.  “You could be really good at this if you work at it, Reece,” he said.

That was the ONLY thing she remembered from her first class.  “Dad, can you BELIEVE it?” she said a thousand times in the car on the way home.  “Coach thinks I can be really good at this.  That’s AWESOME!”

And it WAS awesome.

My kid — who struggles with her confidence because she’s not a pro at most anything in or beyond school — heard a guy that she looked up to say that she could be GOOD at something.  That simple act sparked a whole new level of confidence and commitment in Reece — to the point where she’s trying things I don’t think she would have ever been willing to try a few months ago.

The truth is that EVERY kid deserves to have adults who believe in them.

So here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:  When was the last time that you told a struggling student that you can see their potential?  If the answer is, “I can’t remember,” then you also shouldn’t be surprised when those same students seem to have given up in your classrooms.

Long story short:  Developing a growth mindset in struggling students isn’t an impossible task. 

Instead, it depends on our ability to carefully design lessons with the appropriate level of challenge, our willingness to give specific feedback instead of general encouragement, and our commitment to letting kids know that we believe in them.



Related Radical Reads:

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action.

Aliyana’s Mindset Moment.

The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness.


Maybe There IS Some Value in Graphic Novels?

One of the most spirited conversations in Radical history started with a simple argument:  Graphic novels — which were the hot new genre back in 2011 — don’t require students to think as rigorously as more traditional forms of text.

From the moment that post went live, I was buried in comments from angry media specialists and graphic novel enthusiasts. 

People talked passionately about “reading between the panes,” suggesting that the content in graphic novels was just as complex as the content in more traditional forms of text because it forced readers to build — instead of simply consume — a story.  They talked passionately about the fact that graphic novels made challenging topics more approachable to students.  And they talked passionately about the fact that any text that was engaging to students had value regardless of format and complexity.

I walked away from that conversation (see here and here) just as skeptical as I entered it, convinced that graphic novels had the potential to turn kids into lazy readers who rarely tackled more complicated text simply because there was an entire shelf of easy reads waiting for them in the local library.

Aaron Burden

But something interesting is happening in my own family right now:  My beautiful eight year old daughter Reece has fallen in love with graphic novels!

That’s GOT to be Karma, right?!

She’s already churned through Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters — and she’s asked for Ghost and Drama for Christmas.  She’s in love with Phoebe and her Unicorn.  She begged me to buy her Roller Girl the other day while we were in Target.  And she’s just learned about Sunny Side Up from a friend in her class.

What’s really cool is that she’s CONSTANTLY telling me about how much reading she’s getting done.  “Dad, I read for two hours last night so I might be tired at school today,” she’ll say when I call to check in on her in the morning.  Or, “Can you BELIEVE that I finished an entire book in one day?!”

Here’s why that’s important:  Reece has NEVER been a confident reader.

Letter sounds never came easy to her.  Fluency is a chore.  She’s constantly in the lowest reading group at school — and she knows it.  Meanwhile, her friends are all rock solid readers.  They read fluently and with the kind of emotion and passion that Reece can’t possibly pull off.

That leaves her embarrassed all the time.  Kids read out loud and she can see that she’s not as good as they are.  She reads out loud and the entire room has to wait while she slowly picks her way through pages worth of phonetic landmines just waiting to blow up her esteem in front of everyone she’s trying to impress.

Knowing full well that fluency is often a function of repeated practice, I’ve nudged and prodded Reece to read as much as possible.

I read with her every night.  I’ve tried to find high interest nonfiction for her — things like The True Tales of the Presidents as Kids or the Who Was _____ ? series have always caught her attention.  And I’ve fed her a steady stream of Kate DiCamillo books simply because they are full of odd ball characters that Reece can relate to.

But all of that reading has been side-by-side.  Reece has NEVER wanted to sit down and read silently before — and I think that’s because she knows full well that it will take her twenty or thirty minutes to battle through two or three pages.  Finishing an entire book will be a month-long grind, reinforcing the notion that she’s just “a bad reader.”

With graphic novels, however, she’s finishing “entire books” on her own in just a few days.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I still have my doubts about graphic novels. 

I’m not convinced that they are all that complex and I don’t buy the notion that there are all kinds of “visual literacy demands” that students can only learn by reading graphic novels.  I also think that graphic novels leave kids convinced that reading is always quick and easy — a dangerous take in a world where mental stamina matters more and more every year.  As a result, I’m going to work hard to smuggle more traditional texts into Reece’s reading routine over the next few months and years.

But right now, my kid is a proud reader for the first time in her life. 

Graphic novels have left her convinced that reading IS something that she can do.  She’s curling up in her bed with books.  She’s leaving her iPad home on long drives, jazzed instead that she has time to read her newest books.  She’s talking to friends about the books that she’s finished, joining conversations that she was previously left out of simply because she was never a reader.

All of that matters.  And all of it is thanks to a genre that I’ve never believed in. 



Related Radical Reads:

Wondering (Worrying?) about Graphic Novels.

Lessons Learned about Graphic Novels

Final Thoughts on Graphic Novels




Advice on Teaching and Parenting for Kyle Hamstra!


Dear Kyle,

I’m thinking a ton about you tonight — wondering, really, whether or not tonight will be the night when you become a PARENT for the first time!  

That’s an interesting word, isn’t it?  Parent?

A new part of your identity — something that will define you more than any word has ever defined you before.

Sure, you’re still a teacher.  You’re also still a friend and a colleague and a husband and a son.  You’re still a guy with conservative values from small town Indiana.  You are also a blogger and a Tweeter and a thought leader in your school and in our county. And of course, you’re still the #hashtag180 guy and a STEM guy and an #edcampwake guy.

(You birthed that too, didn’t you?!)

But you are also going to be a PARENT — and that changes everything.  You’ll see.  I’m not sure you believe us yet, even though Chris and Melanie and I have been gently nudging you towards that reality for the past few months.

I thought a lot about what to “get” you to celebrate Baby Hamstra’s entry into your life — and then realized that nothing that I bought from the Baby Barn could rival the advice that I have to give you about being both a parent and a teacher.

You see, there’s a ton of things you need to know, now that you are joining the card carrying ranks of teachers who are also parents.  There are practical things to consider — like how to rearrange your morning AND afternoon schedule to fit within your day care’s drop off and pickup times or how to pack the perfect bag of stuff to keep your kid busy as you sit through teacher workdays for the next 18 years of his life.

You’re also going to have to get REALLY good at writing sub plans — and at watching those 85 sick days of yours get whittled down to 14 because your kid has “hand, foot and mouth disease” or head lice and isn’t welcome back into day care or preschool or first grade until they “aren’t exhibiting symptoms” anymore.

There are also heartwarming things that you are going to need to learn — like finding places in your classroom to hang countless finger paintings made by YOUR kid.  Who cares if they don’t look like anything recognizable.  You’ll recognize them and hold on to them and smile every time you see them.

So will your students, by the way — who are going to LOVE hearing stories about both you and your child.

You’ll become even more to them now — moving from “that cool young teacher” to a real live DAD.  Let them see you with your kid at school functions.  Tell them about dirty diapers and fun weekend outings.  Pull up pictures on your phone.  Every personal story that you share will make you more real to your students than you have ever been before — and real teachers are worth their weight in gold.

You also need to know that being a Dad is going to change who you are as a teacher, Kyle.

You are going to start questioning everything about our “system” of education.  As you are scrambling around the house after a long day looking for a freaking shoe box to make a last minute diorama for a social studies project, you’ll start to question why you ever thought that homework was a good idea to begin with.

As you are listening to a teacher share their concerns and complaints about your kid’s inability to sit still, you’ll start to question why we ever thought it was a good idea to ask kids to sit still for 6 hours a day to begin with.

As you look over report cards that tell you next to nothing about what your child knows and is able to do, you’ll start to question the role that grades play in your own classroom.

And as you think about the interactions your child’s teachers have with him — pushing him, challenging him, inspiring him OR belittling him, embarrassing him, holding him back with crazy rules or ridiculous policies — you’ll start to question every interaction you’ve ever had with a student in your own classroom.  Better yet, you’ll start to strive to be the teacher you know your own kid deserves — and that will make you even better and more beloved than you are already are.

You are going to become FAR more tolerant and FAR more understanding of every kid and every family in your classroom — and that’s a good thing.  But you are also going to become FAR less tolerant of practices that we’ve accepted in education — and that’s going to make you uncomfortable on a good day and disgruntled on the worst.

But you also need to know that you are going to have to give a lot up, too, Kyle — starting with your insane levels of involvement in and commitment to your school, our district and the social spaces that we all know that you love.  

Until now, being chased out of the building by the janitors each night was a sign of your commitment.  Until now, attending every #edcamp within a hundred miles of Raleigh was a sign of your passion for improving education.  Until now, Tweeting and blogging and Voxing a thousand times a day was your way of both staying involved and of giving back.

But starting in just a few short hours, all of those things steal moments from your OWN child and from your OWN growing family.  A minute on your phone participating in a chat is a minute that you aren’t reading a book or building a fort or climbing a tree.  A few hours on a Saturday driving down to the beach to meet and learn from your peers in another part of our state is a few hours of cuddling or laughing that you’ll miss out on, too.

And believe me — you’ll look back ten years from now and miss those moments.  Life really does in the blink of an eye once you really DO have a baby on board.

You also have to realize that “your best efforts” on behalf of your students don’t have to be Herculean. 

I get it — you pride yourself on giving your all.  Your lessons are well crafted.  Your materials are always prepared.  Your assignments are graded quickly and handed back with tons of feedback.

But here’s the thing:  THAT’s not what makes you remarkable and memorable to your students.  What they remember is that you care about them and that you are excited to see them and that you are ready to ask them fantastic questions and celebrate their terrific answers.

They remember who you are — not what you’ve planned or how quick you got their papers graded.

So get comfortable with being a little LESS prepared than usual.  Get ready to walk out of school at 5 PM no matter what — and to leave every single paper ungraded and email unanswered until you walk back in at 8 AM the next morning.  You’ll still be one of the best teachers in your building.  But more importantly, you’ll be a better husband and father all at the same time.

Giving at least as much of yourself to your own kid as you give to the kids in your classroom HAS to be a nonnegotiable for you, no matter how strange that feels to you.

And here’s the one that hurts the most:  You MAY even have to walk away from the classroom completely.

The truth is that — at least here in North Carolina — it’s tough to provide for your family on a teacher’s salary.  Sure, you’ll always have a roof over your head and food in your belly.  And yes, you’ll always be able to buy school supplies and pay for field trips.

But if you want anything more than that — if you want tutors and sleep away camp and family trips to Disney World and a new minivan with room for the entire soccer team on the way to out of town tournaments, you are going to need a second (and probably a third) job.

And take it from me:  Those second and third jobs are going to crush you.

You’ll sneak home in time to kiss your kid goodnight and wonder what you missed while you were gone.  You’ll head out early on the weekends, hoping to get home in time for a family afternoon, but knowing that you are going to miss the slow, lazy routines that make Saturday mornings so special.

The older your child gets, the harder this will be for you — because he will tell you how much he misses you.

He’ll ask you if you can watch a movie with him on a Friday night and you’ll have to tell him that you have part time work to do.  He’ll wait on the porch for you to get home, no matter how late you are.  And he’ll write you notes telling you to have a good day — which will break your heart because you know that if you weren’t working two (or three) jobs, you’d be home to hear him say those same words in person.

Things might not be a LOT different if you move into school leadership or a curriculum coaching position in the district office.  Those folks work long hours, too.  But at least you’ll know that you are being paid enough money to give your child everything that you want him to have.

I know what you are thinking right now:  There’s no WAY you’d ever leave the classroom, right?  You are, above and beyond all, a TEACHER.

It’s who you are.  It’s what you have been for your entire career.  You are proud of what you’ve accomplished.  You love the impact you are making on everyone around you — but especially on the countless kids who will remember Mr. Hamstra as their favorite teacher.

But you are going to be a DAD, now.

And that changes everything.

Super happy for you — and super excited to see what you become.

Rock right on,


Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten.

Welcoming the Newest Radical!


Is Your School a “Rules First” or a “Relationships First” Community?

Over the next year, I’m participating in a school-based book study of George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.

If you haven’t read it before, you ought to pick it up.  What I dig the most about it is the fact that George’s ideas are incredibly approachable.  Not only will you walk away with a better understanding of just what innovation looks like in action, you will walk away with a belief that innovation is doable.


My a-ha this week came in a chapter on the importance of relationships in education.  

George references this Atul Gawande bit describing how ideas spread through an organization.  In the article, Gawande describes something called “the rule of seven touches” that he picked up from a pharmaceutical sales representative:

I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.

That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

I know firsthand that the rule of seven touches works with adults.  Here’s why:  I’m ‘notoriously stubborn’ too! 

Need proof?  Ask literally ANYONE who has worked with me professionally over the last 25 years.

If you are going to have ANY chance of convincing me to embrace a new practice or behavior or to walk in whatever direction you are hoping I’m going to walk, you are going to need to rely on more than just your authority or position.  Instead, you are going to have to have a series of smaller interactions with me that build trust.  If I don’t come to know you — or worse yet, if I’m not convinced that you’ve tried to get to know me — I’m never going to trust you.  And if I don’t trust you, there’s not a chance in the world that you are going to convince me to take your ideas for a spin.

But I wasn’t thinking about adults when I read about the Rule of Seven in The Innovator’s Mindset.  I was thinking about the students who struggle with behaviors in our schools.

You know the kids that I’m talking about:  The ones who aren’t in their seats when we want them to be or who use unkind words to their peers or who can’t keep their hands to themselves or who are late to our classes time and time again or who are in spaces where they aren’t supposed to be or who mouth back when we try to correct their behaviors.

For years, my response to those behaviors had nothing to do with “the rule of seven touches.”  Instead, my response was more along the lines of “the rule of seven consequences.”

I’d sign their behavior trackers or fuss at them in the hallways or chase them back to their classrooms with a stern voice or the ‘evil eye.’  I’d write them up and send them to the office and argue that we needed MORE consequences if we were ever going to ‘manage their behaviors.’

I actually took pride in being ‘the strict teacher’ and would warn kids at the beginning of the year that if they didn’t behave, I would be their LEAST favorite teacher.  I’d call their parents during my planning period, intentionally trying to get kids in trouble.  “Wait until you get home,” I’d crow.  “Your mom is NOT happy with you.”

The funny thing is that NONE of those ‘command and control’ approaches to dealing with student behaviors worked.

Students who were suspended time and again or fussed at time and again or shouted down by teachers time and again or ‘disciplined’ time and again by the adults in a schoolhouse don’t become MORE likely to follow your rules or to participate in your school community in positive ways.

Instead, they resist and fight back and begin to doubt and disrespect everything and everyone in your school community.  Why would you expect cooperation from kids who have been buried in consequences by important adults at every turn?

So I’ve done my best this year to create “positive touches” with the students who struggle with behaviors on my hallway.  

Specifically, I’ve learned the names of kids in different classes that I stumble across over and over again out of place in the hallways.  I say hello using first names every time that I see them. I ask about their weekends, about their interests, and about how their days are going every chance I get.  I say goodbye as the head out the door at the end of the day.  I say, “It’s good to see you!” a thousand times a day to kids who have gotten used to being somebody’s outcast.

There’s nothing remarkable about any of these interactions — and they cost me nothing.  But they are deliberate — designed to get kids to ‘come to know me’ because I realize that if kids who struggle to behave ‘come to know me’, they are more likely to trust me.  And if they trust me, I’ll have a better chance to coach them around behaviors when I need to.

And it’s working.

I’ve already established trusting relationships with some of the most ‘difficult’ kids in our school.  Those kids stop and listen when I ask them to.  If I need them to head back to their classrooms, it happens without any kind of resistance involved.

When they make poor choices, I can call them out on it and know that they will hear me rather than slip directly into denial or anger or belligerence.  What I love the most is that many of them have started stopping by my room on purpose just to say hello in the morning — and they’re bringing friends who want to get to know me, too.

None of this would have happened in previous years, y’all.

That’s because in previous years, I would have tried to drop the hammer on these kids every time I saw them in the hallways.  I would have chased them away or fussed first and asked questions later.  I would have used every punishment that I had available to me, convinced that those punishments were not only deserved, but essential to “send a message” to kids.

Can you see the flaws in my logic?

My priority was obedience first and relationships later, not realizing that obedience — or the lack thereof — was a direct reflection of the state of the relationship that I had with each individual student.  The kids who misbehaved the most were the ones that I’d done nothing to get to know and appreciate and value and celebrate.

Now don’t get me wrong: I haven’t ‘rescued’ any of these students yet.  They aren’t behaving everywhere that they go in our building.  In fact, it’s not unusual for me to find out that they are in trouble for shouting at other teachers or staff members that they’ve encountered during the school day.

But each of those negative interactions bothers me more now than ever because I KNOW that these same students CAN respond in a positive way to correction and to guidance from adults.  That correction and guidance just has to come from adults that they trust — and trust starts when adults concentrate on having positive touches with the most difficult kids in their buildings.

So here’s a simple question I want you to consider:  Is your school a “rules first” or a “relationships first” community?

You are a “rules first” community if you spend more time in staff meetings or leadership meetings or school improvement meetings talking about consequences for kids than you do talking about the best ways to build trust with the kids who need you the most.

You are a “rules first” community if you have an incredibly long list of misbehaviors and their corresponding punishments posted all over your school’s website, but you can’t make a similar list of the deliberate steps that YOU are taking to make sure that every kid — including those that are always in trouble — has positive interactions with adults in your building each day.

You are a “rules first” community if your school is full of teachers who are constantly grumbling about the lack of “enforcement” or “discipline” in your building but those same staff members aren’t willing to roll their sleeves up and create experiences intentionally designed to strengthen relationships with students who are struggling to behave.

You are a “rules first” community if teachers in your building can list all of the things that a difficult student has done WRONG but struggle to come up with anything that those exact same students have done RIGHT.

You are a “rules first” community if you are more than ready to call home to notify parents of all of the ways that their kids have broken the rules, but you never take the time to call home and notify parents of all of the ways that their kids inspire you and make you proud.

And you are a “rules first” community if there are a group of kids that you never seem to be able to reach with consequences.  They’ve tuned you out.  They’ve given up on you.  They don’t trust you — and because they don’t trust you, they will never respond to you in the way that you hope that they will.

If that sounds anything like you, maybe it’s time to start thinking about relationships.

They matter.



Related Radical Reads:

Is Your Team Failing Unsuccessful Practices Together?

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?


Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

I’ve been doing a ton of reflecting lately on just what it is that teachers owe to their parents and students.  

I think that’s because my daughter — a wonderfully quirky kid who can’t stand school — begins third grade on Monday and I’m more than a little worried about it.  I’m already dreading the battles that I know we will have over getting homework done.  They consume much of my evenings — and all of my emotional energy — once school starts.

And I’m dreading the inevitable phone calls from school employees, telling me that my kid isn’t working as hard as she can, isn’t sitting in her seat as quietly as she can, or isn’t making as many friends on the playground as she can.  I’m also dreading the inevitable phone calls telling me that she’s not reading on grade level yet — and that the only solution is some form of remediation that pulls her away from the few things about school that she DOES love.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t blame the school for any of this.  

I know full well that my kid’s strengths don’t align nicely with traditional definitions of success in school.  She’s super curious, but not all that willing to invest her attention in things that don’t interest her.  She’s super articulate and verbal, but not all that willing to wait her turn to share what she’s thinking.  She’s super kind, but only if she feels that she’s accepted by those around her.

And my kid’s weaknesses — stubbornness and insecurity — are only exacerbated by life in school.

She knows full well that there are high stakes attached to darn near everything in her classroom. She recognizes that she doesn’t read and/or write as well as her classmates.  And she understands that she hasn’t found as many friends as her peers.  All of those things cause her to worry and to push back and to quit way more than I would like her to.  And all of those things get in the way of both her happiness and her success in the place where she will spend the majority of her days for the next 10 months.

That breaks my heart.


But I do know that being the parent of a quirky kid has changed who I am as a teacher — and as a result, I’m ready to make three promises to the parents of my quirky kids this year:

Promise #1:  I won’t bury you in homework.

For the parents of kids like mine, homework is a source of constant conflict.  When Reece comes home after a day of struggle at school, she’s not ready to sit down and struggle some more.  After all, she’s spent most of her time between 8-3 feeling insecure already.  And she’s exhausted.  Struggling all day will do that to you.

But homework is always ready and waiting for us — and it’s a constant battle to get done.  It probably takes us twice as long as it takes most kids and families — and twice as long as the teacher intended — because it just doesn’t come easy for my kid.  It also leaves everyone in our house frustrated and annoyed and unhappy with one another — and that sucks.  

Sometimes I wish I could just come home and read with my kid or answer HER questions or play outside in the backyard or watch her at dance class or in gymnastics — but even when we make time for those things, we both know that our fight over homework is looming just around the corner.

So I’m going to limit the amount of homework that I give in my own classroom.  Will there be times that kids have to finish a task or two that we started in class?  Sure.  But there’s no way that there’s going to be work every single day.  Instead, I want to create space for families to be families and for kids to pursue their own interests.  Fights over classroom assignments have no place in our daily routines.

Promise #2: I will celebrate your child, too.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth that I’ve never addressed with my daughter’s teachers:  While I get lots of emails and phone calls and notes about the “bad” things that she’s doing at school, I rarely hear about the positive things that she does.

Now, I get it:  I’m a teacher too.  Finding time to communicate with parents is hard enough to begin with.  My planning time is consumed with meetings and developing lessons and grading papers.  What’s more, why should we set time aside to celebrate kids who are simply following classroom rules?  Meeting basic expectations shouldn’t be cause for celebration, should it?

But I never realized how discouraging it can be to parent a quirky kid through the school system until I had one of my own.  I know that I’m going to hear a LOT over the next ten months about the reasons my kid — who I love with every ounce of my soul — is a disruption or a behavior problem or academically behind her peers.  But it’s unlikely that I’ll hear all that much about what she does well or why she’s worthy of celebration.

That breaks my heart, too.

So I’m going to celebrate every single child — including the quirky kids in my room — this year.  Whether I’m writing Kudos Cookies or writing letters directly to parents, you are going to hear me praise all that is unique and amazing and important about your kid, even if they are struggling academically or socially in my room.  You deserve it.

And so does your kid.

Promise #3: If I call home with a concern, I’ll come prepared with suggestions, too.

The worst part about being the parent of a quirky kid is the feeling of helplessness that I have when I get the inevitable phone calls and emails about my child’s behavioral or academic struggles.

While I appreciate the information and always want to follow through at home with a consequence so that Reece knows that I expect her to “follow the rules” and to “work hard in class,” I have no idea how to change her behavior or to succeed academically in the long term.  If I did, she wouldn’t be behaving the way that she’s behaving to begin with and she certainly wouldn’t be struggling academically!

If Reece is in trouble for behavior, I fuss — but I know that she is likely to get into the same pickle in a few weeks time.  At which point, I’ll get another email or phone call.  And I’ll fuss again.  I’ll ground her or take away her privileges or create some kind of threat that hopefully will motivate her to do all that is expected of her.  “Don’t let me hear from your teachers again!” I’ll say, “Or we aren’t taking that trip to DC with your friends!”

Then, I’ll wait until the same behavior repeats itself.

And if she’s struggling academically, I’ll double down on homework time.  We’ll spend even LONGER at the kitchen table, grinding through as many practice worksheets as I can find on the ol’ Interwebs.  She’ll grumble.  I’ll grumble.  But it’s all I know to do.  I can’t just let her fall further and further behind.  I know what happens to those kids when they grow up.

To be honest, I never REALLY know whether or not the steps I’m taking make any sense.  After all, I don’t teach elementary school.  I’m doing the best that I can with the knowledge that I have — but things never seem to change and I don’t know what to do next.

So this year, EVERY time that I send an email or make a phone call to the parents of a student who is struggling with behaviors or academics, I’m going to do more than just let them know what is going on at school.  I’m ALSO going to let them know the actions that I’m going to take at school to address the situation AND I’m going to offer them some suggestions about the things that they can try at home.  What I’m NOT going to do is drop bad news on parents and expect them to solve the problem at home without me.

After all, I’m the professional educator.  Solving problems is my responsibility.

Could my promises work just as well for kids who are succeeding in school?  


But those aren’t the kids or families that I am most worried about.

I’m worried about families like mine.  Moms and dads and kids who are discouraged and hopeless — convinced that school is something to be survived instead of something to be enjoyed.  Those moms and dads deserve MORE of our support and encouragement and celebration.  It’s easy to point out the weaknesses in quirky kids.  But it is our responsibility to do all that we can to lift those kids up and help them to be successful, too.

I’m not sure I’ve always done that as well as I should.  That changes now.

Related Radical Reads:

Writing Positive Notes to Students is the Best Way to Start the Day.

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed.