What’s The Deal with Willpower?

There are many things you may know about me already: I teach kindergarten, I have a dog, I consult in schools, I write books.

There are also many things you may not know about me: I love romance novels, I am very stubborn, and when school is in session I spend most of September looking like (and acting like) a reanimated zombie. Come to think of it, that reanimated zombie situation doesn’t wrap up come October, I just start wearing make-up. There is no tired like back to school tired, and I would argue that feeling lasts pretty much until school is over, and I started wondering why.

In my reading, I came across some interesting information about willpower, primarily that it is finite. (for the studies read here:http://www.wired.com/2012/10/mf-willpower/) When you burn out of willpower, you burn out, period, it’s gone. You can cram some sugar to boost you up, but ultimately, its taking a break from having to will yourself to do something that helps you reboot and do the next thing. Teaching is an exercise in willpower. For me, it takes willpower to get up, to pack lunch, to ride on the subway- and thats before I even make it to school! From there it takes willpower to be “on”, be my best self, be calm and gentle always, and patiently explain why school is a “pants on” kind of place to a determined pants-less four year old. This isn’t to say I don’t love my job, I do, I love it to pieces, but the point I am trying to make is that sometimes we don’t talk about how all a teacher needs sometimes is a moment to simply reboot.  And when we get that reboot, we come back into our children as a better humans and teachers.

But beyond that, if school requires the willpower of adults, what about for kids? John Hattie talks about an empathy gap between teachers and students, meaning that we, as teachers, don’t really remember what it means to be a child in school. The more we can really feel what it is to be 5, or 6, or 1o again, the better we help our children. So what is the experience for a child in school? Sadly, it is often the experience of drawing on willpower to get through things they’d rather not be doing. Could you imagine being asked to stay still when all your body wants is to move? How hard that must be? Or to feel starving and have to get through 30 more minutes of math? What about wanting to read that Star Wars book you can see from your seat, but aren’t allowed to get because its not at your reading level?

Most children are required to have 1,000,000 times the willpower of adults* (*rounded to nearest million). We think we have it hard? Think about how hard your hardest day is, and for some kids, that is school every day. We need to stop making school work for our adult agendas, and transform it to reflect and support children’s needs. Finland does, every 45 minutes, there is 15 minutes of unstructured time at recess. They find that children are more focused, more successful, and happier, (read more here: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/how-finland-keeps-kids-focused/373544/)

Some of the children we teach drain their willpower tanks before they even enter school, and then are greeted with a list of things they must do, when what they really need is some unstructured time to refill their tanks. Why do we take the things away kids need(recess, play time, unstructured time) to do all the things that we want (work, more work, even more work)? Think about how much more refreshed you, as a teacher, are when you come back from just a few minutes of time to yourself, we need to apply that basic logic to our classrooms.

Now, listen, I want to apply for a job in Finland too, but that is not going to help the children in our classrooms today, so what can we do? A few things in the short term, and in the long term lots of continued conversations about what is right for kids.

Things to try now:

  • Build more open-ended time into your day, even if its just 5-10 minutes every hour or so. It can be a casual chat time, time to move, or if you can, a quick burst outside. The next fifty minutes will be better for it.
  • Allow for opportunities for play. If you can, build in a daily choice time, if you can’t, think creatively and flexibly on how art, legos, blocks, and fantasy play could be incorporated into your curriculum
  • NEVER take away times to play. Find another way to help children learn self-control and finish work, but when we remove a child’s opportunity to refuel, build social competence, and frankly, be a child, we are denying children a basic right.
  • If your kids look like they need a break, give them a break, pushing through on a empty tank has never resulted in great work (see: my entire college career)
  • Look critically at how much choice you give children, and see if there are ways to open it up: time in the classroom library with no restrictions, choosing seats for writing and reading, letting some kids draw or build, while others listen to a read aloud
  • Make a “break room” in your classroom that children can use as needed. Put a bean bag in a corner, add some books and paper to draw and let kids use it when they need it.

And for the long run, lets all get smarter about kids-

  • Rae Pica (http://www.raepica.com) is a great resource
  • A Moving Child is a Learning Child (available here:http://www.amazon.com/Moving-Child-Is-Learning-Teaches/dp/1575424355) reframed my view of movement in the classroom
  • My latest book (available here: http://www.heinemann.com/products/E06288.aspx) helps teachers think about how mindset impacts learning and joy in the classroom
  • Play by Stuart Brown (available here: http://www.amazon.com/Play-Shapes-Brain-Imagination-Invigorates/dp/1583333789) will help you understand how play is fundamental to being human

I hope this helps you, and your kids make the most of this year. Happy beginning of the school year everyone!

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7 thoughts on “What’s The Deal with Willpower?

  1. Your blog posts never disappoint! I remain in awe of your brilliance. Looking forward to spending time with your book over the long weekend.

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