What I learned from a nine-year-old.
Teaching Howard was my very first post. Since that time I have made several changes and really want to share Howard’s story with you again. Howard taught me about the importance of baby steps and how minor accomplishments can propel us all to great places if we persevere.
Before becoming a therapist, I spent a decade in the public school system teaching elementary and middle school children. I vividly remember my first experience as a professional educator. It was my senior year at Virginia Tech, and I was working as a student teacher at an inner city school in Roanoke, Virginia. One of my first responsibilities as an intern was to give my fourth grade class a spelling test.
Howard, a nine-year old boy who had recently been removed from his extremely abusive home, handed in his paper with only his name at the top and numbers one through twenty written vertically down the paper. Beside each number he had left blank where all of the spelling words were to be listed. When I showed the paper to my supervising teacher, she explained that Howard had given up hope of ever passing a test and now refused to even try.
After hearing this, I met with Howard individually and told him that I believed that he had the capability to pass the test and that I only wanted him to work on learning one word. Twenty may have been overwhelming for him, and I knew that he needed a small taste of success, even if it was only spelling one word correctly.
The next week he took the test and actually attempted about half the words. He got just one correct- the one he had been working on. Now you and I both know that getting one out of twenty correct would still earn Howard a failing grade, but this did not need to be pointed out to him. He had progressed! I wanted to get him to believe in himself and visualize passing the test. The only mark that I put on his paper was a big star by the word he spelled correctly. At this point putting an x or circling incorrect words would have discouraged him.
The next week Howard was ready to tackle two spelling words, and several weeks later he had learned to spell all twenty words. You should have seen Howard’s face when a perfect paper was returned to him. Moving forward, Howard would not need weeks to learn his spelling list. He was a bright boy, very capable of learning the words in several days just as the other kids had been doing. Howard just needed confidence. He needed to believe in himself. Baby steps helped him do that. The small successes, learning one word at a time, helped him to believe in himself so that he would try. Baby steps. Twenty appeared overwhelming, but one, he could conquer.
Howard said something to me that day, the day that he earned his very first one hundred percent on a spelling test. He looked at me with absolute amazement in his eyes and said, “Until today, I thought I was stupid and now I know that I am not.” I realized then that this was so much bigger than doing well on a spelling test; this was helping a little boy change the way he perceived himself. As long as he viewed himself as a failure, he refused to try causing him to live up to his own expectation. It had nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with confidence. Howard was able to build the confidence necessary to succeed by taking one baby step. It all began by spelling one word.
What large goal do you need to break down? Try not to overwhelm yourself with the whole picture. Take one small baby step and you may find that your goal is more attainable than you ever imagined.