School News

Secrets of The Self-Driven Child

How can we make sure that kids feel less stressed? It’s a very real question in our fast-paced Washington, DC, environment. On Wednesday, March 6, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, came to Lowell to help answer that question.

Core Ideas

In two sessions addressing faculty and parents, the authors discussed the relationship between stress, intrinsic motivation, and children’s sense of control over their lives. We want kids “to have a strong sense of control…so that when something stressful happens, they don’t try to avoid it, they don’t quit, they go into coping mode, and this is what we want,” said Bill Stixrud.

Johnson explained the relation between performance and stress as a bell curve:

When stress is really low, like zero, so is the performance…As the arousal gets higher, so does the performance, and at some place there is a place of peak performance…but at some point, as the stress gets higher, the performance falls, it comes back down.

So how do you get kids back to an ideal level of stress—to take a test, play in the soccer game, or tackle any challenge they might face? Johnson answered, “We want kids to be intrinsically motivated.” The goal is to help children develop the sense that I am doing this because I want to. That is a sense of control. He emphasized that the character of the motivation is important: “A carrot-and-stick approach increases people’s stress.”

This idea stood out to Pre-Primary Teacher Lisa Powell. “We’re mentoring these children. We can’t force children to be anything other than who they are…We’re here to support them, not direct them.” She told this story to illustrate:

I have a child who would sit at a table and watch all the other children doing puzzles. And I said, “We’re not going to leave yet because I have a question for you. “Is this something you would like to complete?” He looked at me, and I said, “You don’t have to stay here unless you’re ready to complete this puzzle, and I will stay here with you.” Now this child is taking puzzle after puzzle and saying, “I can do it, I can do it.”

According to Stixrud and Johnson, kids need “competence,” “relatedness” (connections to parents, teachers, coaches), and “autonomy" (the sense that one’s choices make a difference) to develop intrinsic motivation. “At places like Lowell, you know that when kids get connected to their teachers or their coaches, their parents, they have all the energy they need to want to do [things]. At a chemical level that connection is enormously valuable,” Johnson told the faculty.

After outlining the core ideas in their book Stixrud and Johnson went on to give concrete advice to help lower stress and anxiety and increase buy-in and motivation. Asking kids if they want help (rather than jumping in to help), supporting children in making their own decisions, and not working harder than the children, were just a few of the ideas they discussed.

“The most important outcome of childhood and adolescence is not where you go to college…[it’s] developing the brain you are going to have for the rest of your life, and for us we want brains that are tolerant to stress…we want brains that are motivated,” Johnson said.

The event was organized by Lowell’s Learning Differences and Neurodiversity parent affinity group. Director of Learning Services, Susan Taylor-Alonso said she was glad to offer this opportunity “for parents with the same questions about their kids to come together and not have to experience the complexity of parenting on their own.”

Fifth grade teacher Brian Stark commented:

Something that resonated with me as both an educator and as a parent is the idea that self-driven children are developed by releasing the responsibility of what they are capable of to them when they are capable of doing it. It is a hard thing to do as a parent; it’s easier for educators because that is part of our practice—teaching and releasing. But as a parent, it’s really challenging when you spend the first part of their lives doing everything for them to keep them alive. To then realize that you have to release it to them…to take off the training wheels and let go of the back of the bike…you have to wrestle with that.

Director of Middle School Kavan Yee understands where parents are coming from: “When Kellyn was born, I had never faced more fear—the fear of messing up something so beautiful and pure…No parent wants to see their child hurt or upset.” He went on to say,

As a director of middle school, my challenge has been to support parents through these struggles to ‘let go.’ I have found many parts of The Self-Driven Child helpful in this process. And when parents and the school trust each other and work together, we can create a supportive environment for children to take control, make mistakes, and become good decision makers.