Can Trauma Be Valuable for Students?

“The steep part was best!”

My 5-year-old daughter exclaimed this as she bounced around my bedroom, early in the morning, reliving the excitement of yesterday’s skiing. Over and over again she came back how great the steep part was. In my mind I was thinking, The steep part? Really? Here’s my memory of the steep part: HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP!

We started the day on the magic carpet – a conveyor belt that moves beginning skiers up a very gentle slop – rehearsing how to turn and make a pizza (i.e., make a wedge with the skis in order to slow down or stop). After lunch we moved to the adjacent kiddy lift and, eventually, my daughter wanted to try a section with a steeper angle.

We start doing our pizzas down this steep part until I hear, “HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP!” and see my daughter’s panicked face as she careens uncontrollably down the slope. I’m able to catch her without incident, but I can tell she is not happy. “I was doing a pizza but I wouldn’t stop,” she says with huff, “I was doing a pizza! I was doing a pizza!”

I can tell she is offended at the pizza for failing her, but she opts for another try at the steep part. Unfortunately, this effort results in more out-of-control skiing, a bad catch on my part, and a crash. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I’m no good at skiing. I want to go home.” She starts to cry. It’s late in the afternoon. She’s tired. I’m Ok with calling it day. But when we get to the bottom of the hill, she turns into the lift line.

Next time down we focus on making a pizza and wide turns down the steep part. This works well for the most part but we still have a crash, a lost ski, and more whimpering. We get to the bottom and my daughter silently shuffles into the lift line once more.

Our next run is generally a success. I have to catch her once when a turn doesn’t quite make it all the way around, but she now mostly has the pizza, wide turn thing down. We call it a success and head for the car.

My daughter’s exuberance about “the steep part” the next morning caught me by surprise. The most traumatizing part of the day was now a thrilling episode to talk about, relive, and take pride in. As an educational psychologist who studies motivation, I couldn’t help but find this reaction rather profound.

Typically, we educational psychologists discourage teachers from traumatizing students. We teach that emotions like anxiety, fear, and frustration are to be avoided at all costs. Yet, this may be a mistake. Increasingly, researchers are recognizing the value of struggling through difficult experiences, even failure experiences. Paul Tough wrote a nice article for the New York Times Magazine a few years back about how failure experiences in school can be important to developing grit (What If the Secret to Success is Failure?). I think most of us get this point. By experiencing and recovering from failure, we learn set backs aren’t the end of the world and success can be achieved through determined effort. But a point less recognized is that emotions like frustration, anxiety, and even hopelessness can be the basis for later feelings of pride and exhilaration.

I have an older daughter (current in 9th grade) attending an expeditionary learning school that places emphasis on complex, long-term, authentic projects. During the course of such projects, there are numerous meltdowns, feelings of hopelessness, and expressions of HEEEELLLLLLLLLLLP! But you know what? When the project is finished, there is great pride and excitement. These projects – the same ones that cause such trauma – bring about the greatest joy in her schooling experience. Moreover, experiencing the trauma seems to be a necessary precondition to experiencing the joy.

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My daughter presenting a project to parents

This is not to say that frustration, anxiety, fear, hopelessness and other traumatic emotions are always desirable. They only seem to serve a useful function under certain conditions. Two come to mind:

  1. These emotions have to be experienced in the pursuit of a worthwhile activity. The individual has to feel they are engaging in something meaningful or important; something worth suffering for to achieve. Skiing is worth suffering for. Many school activities are not. They are artificial, disconnected from students’ experiences, and pointless.
  2. The individual has to eventually achieve some level of success or at least survival. Failure without any degree of progress isn’t going to do anyone any good. That simply leads to disengagement and learned helplessness. My 5-year-old was thrilled about the steep part – not just because it was traumatizing – but because she survived it. Many students never get the support they need to survive and improve at challenging tasks.

By taking on the steep part, my daughter stared fear in the face and didn’t back down. Cried, yes. Whimpered, yes. But she endured. That’s the kind of experience that builds character. It’s also the kind of experience that brings vitality to life and makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.

Students need this kind of experience. And to have it, they need a teacher, parent, and school system willing to send them down the steep part and be there to catch them when they go out of control – over and over again until they master it.

Bonus story. As a scoutmaster, I once took my troop canyoneering in Moab, Utah. One scout was initially terrified of rappelling and had to start with a short 15 ft. ledge and work his way up. Well, on this trip I took the scouts to a place where you rappel down into a crack. This crack then opens into a large chamber and free hanging rappel for about 60 ft. (see picture below). I didn’t tell my scouts about the chamber, which is not visible from above. My scout with the initial rappelling anxiety starts rappelling down all confident and makes it into the crack. Then he sees emptiness below him and freaks out. “Hey! You didn’t tell me this! I’m not happy about this! I’m not having fun! Ok, I’m crying now.”

But here’s the great part. About 30 minutes after doing the rappel, he came up to me and said, “Ok, I admit. That was pretty cool.”

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