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A few weeks ago my small group of kindergarten ELL students had just finished up their intervention session. They had worked so hard to listen and segment sounds in simple words, sort letters by attributes, listen intently to the picture book I read aloud to them and read their “research-based program” reader with the predictable pattern. Before letting them line up, I said, “Who is so smart?”

They looked at me for a brief moment and then simultaneously all pointed at me.

My stomach lurched. I looked closely to see if they were teasing me. They weren’t.

I said it again, “Who is so smart? Don’t point at me. You are smart. Raise your hand high in the air.”

They all shook their heads and pointed again at me.

I gave a recounting of all they’d accomplished in our session that day. I told them they’d worked so hard and were learning so much. “You’re becoming smarter everyday.” No one seemed convinced.

Why is school a place where children think they are not smart? What message are we sending that allows them to believe the only knowledgeable person in the room is the teacher? And what can we do to change that?

A teacher friend of mine starts each year with her students by sharing that everyone in their classroom is a learner and a teacher. The writing on her classroom wall states, We are all teachers and learners in this community.

There’s been a lot of buzz about Carol Dweck’s work on developing a growth mindset. It’s important for us to model for students that effort is important and should be encouraged, but Dweck reminds us that “the growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning.”

I heard Dr. Gravity Goldberg speak at a conference this weekend and she said something that resonated with me. “When we solve problems for others, we rob them of their evolutionary right to struggle.” We know from brain research that repeated attempts to solve problems helps to build neural pathways. If kids are not given the opportunity, and encouraged to persevere under duress, those neural connections are left pathetically weak and underdeveloped.

It’s amazing to me that as parents and caregivers, we are given the opportunity to help our own children work out life’s complexities in a safe environment. Watching your own children struggle and experience the ordinary disappointments and failures is hard because we want to protect them from pain.

The same is true for teachers. We rarely enjoy watching our students wrestle with personal and academic setbacks. What better place to experience that, however, than in a supportive classroom with a community that cares and cheers one another on to becoming our best?

Three decades in education has shown me that a true sense of accomplishment comes from effort. Kids (and adults for that matter) gain confidence and build assurance in themselves through hard fought personal struggle. When we deny that for kids they miss the opportunity to persist and ultimately to succeed. As teachers we need to recommit to providing that safe environment where it’s OK not to know or be proficient *yet*. At the same time kids should also be assured there is an expectation in their learning community that everyone must keep at the learning, even with the likelihood they’ll fail and fail again.

Now my little kindergarten scholars and I end each intervention session with the same question. “Who is becoming smarter and smarter every day?”

Hands in the air all around.

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