Have you seen a human standing with their dog and heard this:
‘Come on, you know this, sit down.’
Looking at you, the human says ‘they’re just showing me up because you’re here.’
‘For the love of all things sacred will you SIT DOWN!’
The dog isn’t showing their human up, there are a number of reasons why they might not park their bum in that moment but none of those reasons are based on a lack of effort or the inability to complete the task. On the contrary, if the dog has been taught the cue, they understand the cue and they’re motivated to follow the cue, they’re more than likely to park their bum when asked to do so. Sighthounds on a cold surface are often the exception to this rule!
It’s the equivalent of ‘just try harder’ being said to a child who’s struggling in class. Let’s take maths as an example. Paws up if you love maths?! I do not. I am lucky to have a legendary accountant who takes all numerical pressure away from me but as a child, referring my homework to an accountant would have been frowned upon.
I had a particularly terrifying maths teacher when I started secondary school. She was renowned for striking terror at the heart of any student who couldn’t quote Pythagoras. I was one of the few who could spell ‘Pythagoras’ but that did not impress her. I also learned in that particular lesson that humour was not going to help me one little bit.
I was told:
‘You DO understand; you’re just not trying hard enough.’
‘Go and sit on your own and try again.’
‘Come back at lunch time and you can keep trying for another hour.’
A less terrifying teacher asked why I was standing outside the classroom waiting for a lunchtime detention. I was a proper geek (I still am way too school for cool) and the teacher was surprised to see me there. When I told her that I didn’t understand and hadn’t been able to do my homework (this also shows that I pre-date Google) she said ‘don’t worry, maybe maths just isn’t your subject.’
None of these experiences were helpful.
While one was much less terrifying than the other, I learned that maths was not for me. No matter what I did, I believed that I couldn’t improve. From then on, numbers became my nemesis.
I had developed a fixed mindset.
You know as well as I do that repeating the word ‘sit’ twenty times isn’t helpful to you or your canine bestie. It’s a sign that you need to find out why they’re not sure what you’re wittering on about and if the bum-parking cue is something you want your dog to understand, find a new way to teach them.
Being told twenty times to ‘try harder’ was not helpful to me. I didn’t understand and no amount of effort in repeating the same thing was going to change that.
Just like a parking-resistant dog, I needed to hear that I’d found a way that didn’t work for me and that was ok. I needed to hear that setbacks meant that I needed to find a different way forward and that’s ok. I needed to hear that I could speak up, that confusion was part of the learning process and that asking for help is safe to do.
While I do rely on my accountant now, I have started to learn much more about maths in a way that works for me. If I ever get invited onto Dragon’s Den, I don’t want to show myself up in front of Deborah Meaden. I think she’s amazing. See, I just needed the right motivation for me!
What if, as a child, I had instilled the core beliefs that I am brave, that I can do my best and that I believe in myself. Would I have spoken up and asked for help rather than retreating and taking the detention because ‘naughty’ was preferable to ‘stupid?’ Would I have had faith that actually I could improve and maths is for anyone, as long as they find a way of learning that works for them?
I did learn that fear does not inspire a positive learning environment.
I also learned that even the kindest, most well-meaning comment, can leave a lasting impact. Even though I can embrace a colour coded spreadsheet like a pro now, I still hear myself saying ‘I’m not a numbers person.’
It’s not true but that highlights the power of embedded core beliefs that it’s my automatic response.
I know that learning needs to be fun. I know the power of a story to embed a positive core belief. I know that there’s more to teaching than kindness. I know that dogs are the difference that make the difference.
Help me plant a seed in the minds of young humans. Together, we can instil fun, positive core beliefs in the minds of children at a time when they need them most.
I am brave. I am doing my best. I believe in myself.