Article: ‘Positive Affirmation and the Power of “You Can Do It”’ by Tiana Chan
If I have learned anything from tutoring and mentoring, whether the students are seven to seventeen years old, there is nothing more important than making sure they know they have the power to achieve. Growing up with two extremely positive and supportive parents, I used to take for granted what it meant to feel like I could be whoever I wanted, or that I had the power to accomplish anything. One of the greatest challenges of working with underprivileged youth has been the lack of confidence I too often encounter in these kids. They tend to give up or shut down more quickly than I expect simply because they believe they “can’t do it.” Many even say they never understand what is being taught because they have not been encouraged in the past.
Working with teenagers in a predominantly underserved African American community this past summer, I came to understand how truly important this idea of positive affirmation can be. For six weeks in June and July, I taught 40 students high-school level math in order to better prepare them for their college entrance exams. The majority of the students I worked with were energetic and very capable, yet generally uninterested and unmotivated to be in a classroom. One student in particular, a sixteen year-old girl named Makylea, had so much potential but also some of the most challenging obstacles to overcome. It was my experience with her that made me really recognize and reflect on the issue of self-confidence within education.
The first day I met Makylea, she barely spoke a word and a teaching assistant told me she had recently had some issues at home. With this knowledge, I was careful not to push too hard at the beginning. I knew the mentorship aspect would be key in attaining real results and improvement in her studies. Gradually, I gained her trust and we started to work one on one. The biggest challenge though was convincing her that she could do it. I often heard complaints such as, “I hate math,” “I’ve never been good at math,” and “there is no way I can understand it now.” If she encountered a more difficult question, she would quickly give up and feel defeated. Finally, one day in the middle of the program, Makylea had her “aha” moment. She was working on an algebraic equation and finally understood how to correctly isolate a variable. It was as if all the self-doubt from before momentarily vanished. I could tell that after this point, and as she continued to pick up on other concepts, she became more and more confident in her abilities. After all the trials, missteps, and disheartening setbacks, observing this transformation was one of the most gratifying things for me to watch. Makylea saw the value of persistence and hard work, but more importantly she saw value in herself as a student and as an effective learner.
Many studies have been conducted that showcase this phenomenon and the impact of psychology on children’s success. One professor at the University of Illinois conducted research where he tested 144 boys and girls, aged four to seven. He gave them images of 3-D blocks and told them to match each image with a picture of the same block shown at a different angle. Then, in a second more difficult round, one group was told that the opposite gender tended to be better at the game (so boys were told girls were good at the game, girls were told that boys were good at the game). Another group of children (the control group) heard nothing. While the control group’s scores fell by 3% due to the increased difficulty, the gender biased group’s scores fell by 13%. This study proves how influential a child’s belief in his or her ability is in contributing to the child’s ultimate success.
Therefore when mentoring a student, there is an incredible power in positive affirmation to inspire and encourage them in their academic studies. Knowing how effective this tool can be will help in a classroom setting or even at home in the family environment. After that initial breakthrough with Makylea, I continued to check up on her and lent advice regarding anything from Geometry to what she wanted for her future career. While she had not even planned on attending college before this summer, I can proudly say Makylea is currently applying to numerous universities, ranging from Penn State to Princeton. Ultimately, having someone that a child knows they can count on or having someone who wants to see them succeed is one of the most valuable assets to a student’s growth and development. Thus we must be sure to focus on not only the skills and topics, but also in how we present and phrase them. Replacing negative criticisms with positive coaching will build self-confidence and self-worth, thereby helping a student attain both short-term and long-term goals.
Tiana Chan is currently studying abroad at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Starting her junior year of high school, she has been involved in various tutoring, mentoring, and volunteer organizations. Most recently at Georgetown University, she coordinated for DC Schools Project, a mentorship and advocacy organization that focused on teaching English as a Foreign Language to immigrants of all ages. This past summer she also taught college test-prep to predominantly underserved African American teenagers in the Southeast DC area.