Helping young teenagers to practice

This month’s guest post for parents comes from Zaretta Hammond, an education consultant who works with educators and parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zaretta’s work focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of struggling learners, with particular attention to issues of equity in learning.

My 14-year-old daughter asked me to buy her a guitar this month because she wanted to learn to play like Taylor Swift. This request opened up an opportunity for us to talk about what it would take for her to get really good at playing the guitar. I could see her enthusiasm for taking on this new adventure as she talked about learning to play. I wasn’t concerned about her passion and excitement, but her willingness to commit to the “hard part” — the deliberate practice –to get good when the novelty will wore off.

Early adolescence is a tough time in the parent-child relationship to support a child in getting good at something. Despite having helped our children “get good” at tying their shoes, riding a bike, learning to read, and a host of other skills, at this stage we have less control over whether or not they will commit to deliberate practice.

What’s our role in supporting our children to get good at something new, especially when they hit the hard parts? Deliberate practice has some distinguishing characteristics that are important to understand as we think about how to support our children at different ages and stages in getting good at something.

• It’s about mastering a technique, not completing a task. This gives deliberate practice a special purpose. Teenagers are better than younger children in seeing how the small parts fit together to create a bigger picture and lead to mastery. Use this as leverage in helping the young person identify which parts of the process he’s already mastered and which parts still need work. From here, you can help him work on a single technique at a time.

• Deliberate practice requires undivided attention and focus. It takes mindfulness, which is often a challenge to kids who are used to multi-tasking all day. It also requires us to cultivate the ability to redirect our attention when the mind drifts. Teenagers often resist unplugging from multiple gadgets and simultaneous tasks, and they’ll experience a bit of a withdrawal period. We can help them create routines and rituals to make the transition from multi-tasking to doing one thing at a time. That can help them get used to the feeling of focusing on one thing for an extended period of time before going into a period of deliberate practice.

Over time, teenagers’ stamina for sustained focus and attention will increase. We can also help them recognize when their attention drifts. Most people can only concentrate intensely for 15 minutes before they need to shift their attention for a few minutes before coming back to the task at hand.

• Deliberate practice requires that we manage the frustration of making mistakes. We need to get okay with making mistakes, learning to use them as information that can help us correct our technique. We can help our children take an inquiry stance toward their mistakes. Teach them to ask themselves questions about how they got a particular outcome when practicing a technique or procedure a particular way. What might happen if they change it in a particular way?

With an inquiry mindset, young teenagers will be less frustrated at making mistakes. When frustration does come up, and it always does even for the most seasoned learners, we can help them center themselves with simple stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or body movement.

What are your own experiences of helping your children with issues like these? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll reply with your story in the Comment field below.

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