by Jai Flicker
From early on in my work as an educator, I recognized that to help my students truly thrive I needed to embrace them as individuals, not focus solely on helping them with academic content. It turned out that taking this humanistic approach not only came in handy when a student of mine would come in upset about something that had happened at school that day, but it also nourished my relationships with students in general, which in turn allowed me to better support them academically. For, as David Brooks recently pointed out in a NY Times opinion piece, "students learn from people they love."
Initially, I relied on a combination intuition and common sense to guide my support of students. This worked well enough, but as LifeWorks grew I found myself responsible for training others. When I went to try to explain what I had been doing, I discovered that communicating my approach was more difficult than expected. The work turned out to be too complex for me to organize into a clear and concise framework.
Fortunately, it turns out there are brilliant researchers and theorists out there that have devoted their lives to mapping the territory of human development. When I finally discovered some frameworks that described in great detail the very phenomena that I had been witnessing myself for years it came a breath of fresh air. These theories would give me language for things that I had previously only sensed. They helped explain why some of my best strategies actually worked, as well as why some of my other less successful ones didn't. These theories mapped out the territory of the interior. Or, perhaps more accurately, they shone light on previously hard to see terrain. I had been navigating by feel mostly, but there was a lot I still could not see. Turning on the lights was a game changer.
One of the most illuminating theories I have come across is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Its name relates to the fact that one of the keys to motivation is allowing others to chart their own course, to allow them to be self-determined, as opposed to controlling them. Over the past forty years of research, this theory has expanded and grown. Today, hundreds of researchers in dozen of countries are contributing to the project of refining this framework, which at its core offers the following insight: When our psychological needs get met, we thrive. When our needs go unmet, we languish.
Just as we all have physiological needs that must be met for us to survive, in order for us to grow and thrive psychologically, our basic psychological needs must be met. The problem is, most of us don't have a clear sense of what these crucial psychological needs are. Fortunately, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, after over four decades of research, have identified the three psychological needs that we all must meet in order to flourish. Deci and Ryan outline these needs in their theoretical framework called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is one of the most powerful psychological theories I have yet to encounter.
At the core of SDT is the research-based knowledge that, in order to actualize our human potential, we must ultimately feel in charge of our own lives.
Autonomy refers to individuals being the source of their own actions, masters of their own destinies. Those who exhibit autonomy make choices as an authentic expression of themselves.
While autonomy is often confounded with the concept of independence, the two concepts differ in important ways. To be independent means to go it alone. But we can act autonomously while still allowing others to contribute meaningfully to our lives. This is possible as long as, in the end, we feel empowered to make our own decisions, not controlled or coerced. When we, as parents and educators, end up making choices for children, even with good intentions, we end up thwarting their autonomy.
All too often, we end up stifling people's sense of autonomy when we get caught up trying to manage their behavior. One simple alternative to managing behavior is to support teens as they try to make tough decision for themselves. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Help them think through various options or scenarios. Share your own relevant life experience so that they might learn from you. However, at the end of of the day, to support autonomy we must allow them to make their own choices.
Parents often fear that if they let their teens start making their own decisions then they'll immediately start making really bad, even dangerous choices. But this is a misunderstanding of where bad decisions come from. I have seen just the opposite -- I have seen kids make some of their best decisions when given the most autonomy support.
The second fundamental need central to human development and wellbeing is that of relatedness, or more simply put, the need for love. Our need for relatedness gets fulfilled when we feel connected to others and when we experience a sense of belonging, both with other individuals and with the community as a whole. Feeling cared for by others, as well as caring for them in return, provides us with an extremely important sense of security and well-being.
One of the best ways to help children develop a strong sense of relatedness is to provide them with unconditional love. Love that is freely given and is not based on performance or achievement leads to optimal development. This is because love based on performance can be lost if one's actions don't measure up. Offering conditional love can be an effective way to control behavior, but it does not create the secure context in which children thrive. Conditional love tends to lead to a range of undesirable outcomes, such as anxiety, resentment, amotivation, etc. I do not mean to imply that it is somehow harmful to praise kids for their achievements. We just need to make sure that the message that we love and care about them regardless of performance is well established first.
A third fundamental need identified by Self-Determination Theory is the need for competence, which occurs when people feel effective in their ongoing interactions with the world around them. We all need opportunities that would allow us to exercise and express our skills and capacities.
All parents want their kids to be confident, but true confidence comes from having one’s needs met, which includes the need for competence. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, of course, but that is not necessary for a healthy sense of competency. Rather, we need to experience a reasonable level of competency within a select few domains. A child who struggles in school but excels in sports, or drama, or as a musician, will fare better than a child who struggles in school but does not experience competence outside of school.
Supporting the development of competence inevitably involves providing some form of technical training or coaching, and we can support this need in teens even when we don't have the technical skill to pass on ourselves by offering encouragement. Learning any new skill is fraught with challenges and, at times, frustration. When kids hit a wall and feel like giving up, empathizing with them and offering encouragement can help them push through.
Putting Theory into Practice
As we wrestle with how to best support teens, one sure bet is to focus on helping them meet their psychological needs. By placing autonomy, relatedness, and competence at the forefront of our decision-making as parents and educators, we can help teens reach their full potential.
At LifeWorks, we do this every day. When students arrive, we make sure to connect with them as people, not just as students to be tutored. Sometimes, this is just a warm "Hello, how are you?" Sometimes, this is a five-minute check in about the student's day. Whatever form it takes, establishing a connection is key to providing meaningful academic support.
As students transition into work mode, we help them devise individualized plans for their sessions rather than simply telling them what to do. We do not leave them to their own devices (literally). Rather, we ask helpful, supportive questions such as: What do you need the most help with today? What would you like to accomplish during your session? Which of your assignments do you think will take the most time? By asking such questions we help facilitate the student's own decision making process, thereby nurturing and supporting their sense of autonomy.
Once a personal connection has been established and a plan is formulated in an autonomy-supportive way, students are really ready to learn. By taking the time to attend to a student's needs, we create an optimal learning environment, which makes teaching them new academic material much more effective. This, in turn, leads to increase student competency. When all three fundamental needs are getting met, that's when students truly thrive!