Let’s say that you were some sort of tutor or instructor. It could be tennis, golf, keyboarding, chess, ballroom dancing, whatever. Which student do you think it would easier to teach:
- A student who had never tried that skill before, or
- A student who had been taught, but was taught the wrong way for years and years?
My guess is that the former would be an easier student. Have you ever tried to correct a bad golf swing? Or tried to explain proper typing to someone who hunt-and-pecked for decades? It’s frustrating for both the teacher and the student.
But when you talk with educators and experts who have worked in high-poverty areas, you face the same challenges. You get a child when he is 6 or 10 or 16 years old, already having learned certain “life skills” (but not skills like you and I would call them) over the years, and you expect change over 9 months, with just a few hours per week? Not going to happen.
Old Adages Are True, Sometimes
You know the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” Coaches and teachers and parents use it all the time when telling kids to repeat drills over and over and over. Well, it’s sorta true. A better saying would be, “Whatever way you keep practicing, you get better at doing that way.” Any coach will tell you that a sloppy week of practices will lead to sloppy game.
What about “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? This one is mostly true. Of course, people learn new skills all the time. But our brains are more efficient in becoming better at what we already know, as opposed to learning new concepts and talents. (If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend many books by Marcus Buckingham. A good book with which to start is Now, Discover Your Strengths.)
How the brain functions and becomes better at skills is true whether it’s:
- active reinforcement, such as being taught by a teacher, coach, or friend;
- passive reinforcement, such as being on the receiving end of abuse or neglect; or
- unspoken reinforcement, such as the unwritten rules needed to survive on the street.
As you can learn from this post by The Art of Manliness, the adolescent and teenage brain is ripe for learning. It’s just a matter of what behaviors are being imprinted on that brain.
A Word on Abuse and Trauma
Many children growing up in poverty are exposed to years and years of conditions that those of us in the middle class cannot fathom. We’ve all heard of the connection between childhood trauma and violence as adults. But scientists are beginning to learn the connection, that childhood trauma actually changes the structure of the brain, which can have a lifelong effect on behavior.
And, as I noted in Cuddling Is Good for Your Child’s Brain, it is not merely intentional abuse that affects the brain. A lack of nurturing can have the same negative results.
Now What Do We Do?
Recognizing that futility of trying to rewire the brain of a child (and especially of a teenager), what should we do? Is there hope?
Yes! But the path forward for that child is not telling him that everything he knows is completely wrong. First of all, he’ll likely become discouraged and exasperated. Secondly, saying that is a subtle way (however unintentional) of dishonoring his mom (or grandparents, or aunt, or whoever raised him). We must empower parents, not isolate them.
What we have to do is show them that they have options, and they have the ability to make a choice. Most children in poverty do not grow up with an understanding that they have many choices in life. They have narrow perspectives on life.
Help them understand that they do have choices, and help them understand the end result of those choices. Do not underestimate the need to empower them with this knowledge.
We probably can’t get youth to unlearn every negative “skill” they have been taught in their lives. But we can direct them to a better path forward.
- Love Them Into the Middle Class
- Mentoring: A Gameplan for Poverty
- At-Risk Youth: What Can Be Done?
- The Water Is Wide: Lessons about Charity, Racism, and the Shackles of Slavery
- Feeling the Pain of a Fatherless Generation: Angry Boys
- “That Lady I Was Telling You About”
**image courtesy of ywel via sxc.hu