By Stuart Adams from Top of the Class Home Tutoring Sydney
You know how a lot of guys like repairing engines and other mechanical devices as a hobby? Apparently some people just need to ‘fix’ something. Well over the past year or so I’ve developed the hobby of fixing people. In fact, I’ve become obsessed with it, and in the process have become quite good at it too. People around me are often wondering how I am doing it. Well there are a few little secrets I’m not going to reveal, but for the most part, I have disclosed a step by step guide below that can be replicated by anyone, especially parents, teachers, coaches and tutors. Happy fixing!
Fight or Flight
During early human existence, staying alive long enough to reach adulthood meant having to avoid threats such as wild animals and other dangers which modern man no longer needs to worry about. As a survival mechanism, the primitive brain developed an instinctive programing system to alert us when to trigger our defence mode into action (sometimes referred to as ‘fight or flight’ mode).This mechanism was developed by the subconscious mind, which records all experiences and links emotions to their memory. When we experience something which makes us feel threatened at a young age, our subconscious defence system links anything associated with this memory as a threat. Then next time we encounter something our subconscious mind associates with that past experience, it’s protective instinct tries to drive us away from it by triggering the defence mode into action in preparation for ‘fight or flight’. (This occurs even if the conscious mind has no memory of the original experience.) The emotional effect (anxiety) strongly draws us away from that particular trigger on future occasions, even if our concscious mind no longer sees it as a threat. In psychology, this effect is known as ‘aversive conditioning’. The body also responds by affecting the way the brain functions. This is why during times of anxiety (fear, pressure, stress, trauma, etc.) it becomes difficult to stay calm, think clearly and store clear memories.
The Modern Impact of a Primitive Defence System
Although this defence system was great for keeping our early ancestors away from harm, the evolutionary hangover effect it has left modern man with is not so helpful. The ‘fight or flight’ system originally designed to protect us from threats, is actually the cause of anxiety which impairs us from achieving greater success in life. Rather than dangerous predators, the modern day child is likely to link the ‘threat’ response to experiences which create a feeling of failure, shame or extreme powerlessness. These feelings may occur during experiences we would obviously consider traumatic (such as abuse or neglect) however may also occur in less obvious situations such as struggling to understand school work or being exposed to excessive criticism or bullying. . As a result, it is common for children to develop mild aversive conditioning to triggers such as maths, literacy, public speaking, sporting activities, social interaction, confrontation, etc.
The reaction may not be as obvious or severe (such as panic attacks) as aversions to more traumatic experiences (such as abuse or neglect) though they do cause enough anxiety to impair the childs ability to face those situations with confidence in the future. The emotional response pulls us away from that particular task, making it difficult to feel motivated towards it. This becomes a cyclical effect, described in our article on the emotional impact on learning.
The impact this has on school work and learning is generally not as severe as panic attacks, but is often manifested at the lower end of the scale such as irritability, difficulty staying focused and poor motivation. The subconscious begins to pull the mind away from the task at hand, and instead pull it towards the direction it has been conditioned to feel better about. We see this in school students all the time, when they find it difficult to stay focused on their homework for example, and instead feel drawn towards distractions such as watching television, playing games, playing with their phone or getting distracted by social media (depending on their age).
Confidence Creates Passion, Passion Drives Motivation
The good news is however that this effect can be reversed. The same part of the mind which links negative associations with experiences perceived as threatening can also link positive associations with experiences perceived as empowering. This is how we develop likes, interests, hobbies and passions. In fact, there is a direct link between how much a young person feels empowered by something and how much they feel passionate towards it. As explained in the previous article; once a person develops passion towards something, their motivation automatically drives them strongly towards it. The key to directing our children towards success in any given area therefore becomes a question of how we can get them to overcome negative threatening associations (ie fear) and create positive empowering associations (ie confidence) instead. The answer lies in shifting their beliefs.
The ‘Pull Away’ or ‘Pull Towards’ Effect is Guided by Subconscious Beliefs
The difference between whether we approach something with absolute terror or absolute confidence all depends on our beliefs about it. If we believe we are bad at it, we therefore believe we are likely to fail at it. Our mind’s natural reaction is to pull us away from that task to protect us from experiencing the effects of failure (disappointment, shame, criticism etc.) which past experiences have caused us to link as a ‘threat’. The ‘pull away’ effect impairs our motivation towards that task whenever we approach it in the future.
Just as magnetic attraction and repulsion acts as an invisible force we can’t see, this psychological effect can seem a bit invisible to us as well, as it is being guided by our subconscious mind. This means that we may not even consciously realise why we are having difficulty motivating ourselves towards that particular task. We may not consciously believe we are going to fail, or have any memory of the past experiences which have lead us to establish that subconscious belief. In fact, as we grow older and become more familiar with the process of reasoning, the conscious reasoning a person uses to explain their own behaviour towards the subconsscious ‘threat’ may in fact be very misguided. In other words they may not even realise the real force which is guiding their actions. (This is the minds defence mechanism to protect us from the experience of pain which would occur if we became aware of things we are not ready to face.)
The important clue here is that it is our subconscious mind which either pulls us away or pulls us towards something. This means that it’s our subconscious beliefs which determine the direction of that pull. Even if we hold a conscious belief, we must program the subconscious to believe it as well in order to adjust the ‘pull away’ or ‘pull towards’ effect in the direction we want to go. The difficulty in overcoming this is that we may not be consciously aware of what our subconscious believes are, making it very difficult to do it on our own. It becomes much more effective with the assistance of someone who understands the process and knows how to positively affect it. In changing a persons beliefs about something, we must first understand how those beliefs are formed; especially at the subconscious level.
Beliefs Form in Response to our Experiences
At the conscious level where we can apply logical reasoning, our beliefs about something can be shaped simply by the way we think about it. The subconscious mind however does not reason like an adult. It is much more primitive and functions by linking emotional associations. For this reason, it may be helpful to think of the conscious mind as the adult mind, and the subconscious as the ‘inner child’.
At the subconscious level, our beliefs about something are most powerfully formed following our experiences with it. Most importantly, it is not just our experiences which form our beliefs, but how we perceive or interpret those experiences. It is the emotional meanings that our perceptions place on those experiences which are especially important (i.e., was it was a bad, threatening experience or was it a good, empowering experience?)
For example; have you ever been in a situation where two or more people observe the same thing, yet one person’s views towards it were very negative, whereas the other persons may be very positive? Can you think of an example of a good experience you had recently with something you would have perceived much more negatively in the past (or vice versa)? Why is it that even when the situation is the same, the perceived experienced can change?
Understanding how to change a person’s perception or interpretation of their experiences plays a large role in affecting the beliefs the subconscious mind forms about it. When it comes to changing the subconscious ‘pull away’ into to a ‘pull towards’ response, the aim is to change the perception of the experience from something which feels threatening to something which feels empowering instead. How can we do this?
The Power of Focus
A large part of this process has to do with adjusting what the person focuses on. Try the following exercise to give you a better idea of how focus affects our perceptions.
When you have finished reading this sentance, spend five seconds looking around the room you are in whilst trying to identify and memorise as many objects that you see which are brown. (Do this now).
Now that your eyes have returned towards the computer screen, answer the following question: name all the objects you saw around the room that were red. Once you have done this, read the following instruction:
Now do the exact same thing for five seconds after the end of this sentance, only this time look for all the objects around the room that are red. (Do this now).
So how many objects can you recall this time that were red? Although this may differ depending on the room you are in at the time, it is likely that you found more red items the second time you looked around the room compared to the first time. Why? Were there more red items in the room the second time? No. The difference between both times you did this was not what was actually around you in the room, but what you were focusing on.
We See Most What We Look For Most
The ideal way to change a person’s subconscious beliefs is by controlling their experiences to create an empowering outcome. Whilst this approach is discussed in more detail further on, you probably realise that there is a limit to how much control we can have over our children’s experiences. What we have far more control over however is the way in which they interpret the experiences they have.
There are potentially good and potentially bad aspects to most experiences, depending on how we look at it. (Just as there are both red and brown objects in most rooms). The exercise above demonstrates how we tend to see most what we look for most. Whilst that exercise applied to visual observation of coloured objects, the same effect applies when it comes to how we emotionally interperet our experiences. The best leverage we have on affecting the experiences which determine our children’s beliefs therefore is in how we can get them to look at it by redirecting their focus. The question then becomes, how do we shift their focus and what do we shift their focus towards instead?
In our article about the emotional impact on learning, part of the fear cycle described states that:
This negative attitude will affect how they perceive anything to do with X. For example, even if they do better the next time they attempt X, the child is less likely to notice their progress and instead focus on their failings or other negative aspects about X. (This psychological effect is similar to the ‘placebo effect’ in reverse). By this stage the child has become especially sensitive to criticism about X, and is likely respond poorly to praise even when they do well at X.
Despite the experiences which caused the initial negative belief to be formed, it is the continued focus on faults, failings and other disempowering experiences which drive that belief with momentum to continue. Poor marks, mistakes, criticism and humiliation take the foreground of focus, just as brown objects in the room did in the exercise above. During these times however, it is entirely likely that the child is still making some progress which goes unnoticed. They are likely to be times they gain new understandings just as there are likely to be times they performed better than expected. Just as the red objects in the room however, these potentially empowering experiences tend to go unnoticed and blur into the background, overshadowed by the observation of disempowering experiences instead. If we want to transform our children’s fear into confidence, we must shift their focus in the direction of experiences the subconscious mind will interpret as empowering. In the presence of obvious success, the next best empowering thing to focus on is progress.
Connecting the Dots in a Clear, Upwards Direction
Progress tends to happen in bits and pieces like random dots on a page. For the progress to become clearly focused on in the mind of the student, those dots must be joined to create a clearer overall picture, otherwise they become lost and blured into the background. Most importantly, those dots need to be joined to create a picture much like a staircase, gradually climbing upward. When the student’s conceptualisation of their progress becomes focused clearly on a an upward direction, it creates an empowering feeling towards approaching future tasks with confidence.
The Progress Has to be Real
Trying to focus on progress and positive outcomes to develop the subconscious belief that “I am good at this” has its limitations however. In order to focus on progressive experiences, there needs to be real progress. Let’s say for example, you were trying to build your child’s confidence in running, but in each race they ran consistently slower and slower. No matter how hard you try to guide their focus on something positive, it becomes difficult if it is quite obvious to the child that there is no progress. For this reason, it becomes important that we exercise control over the situation to ensure that the child really is having a consistently good outcome by creating real progress to focus on. The most important part of this process involves strategic goal setting.
Goals Can Make or Break the Direction of Progress
Goal setting is important at any age or level of success, and is an important strategy used by leaders in the workforce as well. Goal setting can help us create real progress whilst directing focus on connecting the dots in an upwards direction. If goals are not set, then the progress may occur incidentally and go unnoticed. If the goals are set too high, the person will fall short, focus on their failings and interpret the experience as disempowering.
Say for example you achieved 3 goals after you put effort into a particular task. Would you be proud of that outcome of would you view that as a failure? The answer is that it depends on the goals you originally set. If you set 6 goals, you are likely to see this as a poor outcome which will dampen your motivation. If however you set 2 goals originally (and believed that achieving these goals actually represent success to you) then you are likely to see this as a raging success which will probably fire up your motivation instead. This fired up motivation is likely to burn out of fuel however if it is not conditioned through consistent repetition. To do this, we must understand how to break goals down into smaller portions so they can be achieved with regular consistency.
Progress Must Be Regular
It is crucially important that empoweing experiences occur frequently so that the ‘staircase’ of progress becomes focused on so strongly and consistently that it slowly filters down into the subconscious mind to change the belief and reverse its emotional conditioning.This means the person needs to be focused on the goals they are achieving on a regular basis. Long term goals therefore will not provide this effect. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make when setting goals is that their goals are set too far into the future or loosley defined. For example; “I want to lose weight and be slim” is a much more poorely defined goal than “I want to lose 5 kilos in the next 2 months”. Even then, losing 5 kilos over 2 months requires motivation every day, not just today and the day 2 months from now. That motivation must come from regular progress by achieving goals consistently. Goals therefore become more frequrntly achievable when they are broken up into Aims and Objectives. Objectives are smaller, quantifiable goals that progressively build on each other. When the objectives are all combined, they achieve an overall aim.
Goals: Aims vs Objectives
Imagine you are in the stairwell of a ten story building, and want to reach the top of the building. There may be 20 stairs which lead up to the next story, then another 20 stairs to the second story and so on. If your goal is to reach the top, you could break it down by aiming to reach one story at a time. To break it down even further, you could reach each story at a time by taking one stair at a time. Using this analogy, each story represents an aim, whilst each step represents an objective. Even if you fall or have to stop every now and then, you will be far more focused on your progress by being aware of how many stairs and stories you have already climbed. Moreover, the trip to the top no longer seems so unreachable when you know that all you need to do is keep doing what you’re already doing – climbing stairs.
Being slim might be your overall goal, whilst loosing 5 kilos in the next 2 months may be your first aim. You will still have to achieve numerous objectives along the way to reach this aim however. This may include spending 30 minutes exercising at lunch time today, replacing your chicken drumsticks with chicken breast at dinner tonight, making an appointment with the Dietitian tomorrow, as well as numerous other objectives every single day for the next 2 months to achieve that aim.
Break, Reverse, Drive!
Ensuring that the student’s progress becomes more consistent through achieving objectives and aims is the first part of the reconditioning process. Creating new and clearly visible progress is like slamming the breaks on the fear cycle until it has come to a halt. Reconditioning the subconscious mind to start the cycle moving in the opposite direction however requires emotional drive and empowering momentum to keep it moving. So once the progress starts to build, it is important to link strong empowering feelings towards that progress to continue with a new cycle of confidence.
One of the powers which the subconscious mind has over us is that the way we feel about ourselves subconsciously is largely determined by the way we perceive others to feel about us. When we approach something we have little confidence in, the feedback we receive from those around us becomes especially crucial in determining whether we become more or less confident about it. The more we look up to the person giving the feedback, the more impact it will have on us. This is true at any age, but especially during childhood and adolescence, and especially when it relates to something we are insecure about.
It therefore becomes very important for a good tutor to give praise in the right ways and at the right times. When discussing progress, it becomes especially helpful if this is done in front of both child and parents, every single lesson. Having ones parents show pride in the progress they have made is an extremely powerful driving force for attaching positive emotion towards that which was previously perceived as negative.
The Praise Paradox
As parents, we naturally have a desire for our chidlren to ‘do their best’ in all things. Have you ever found that your children are more likely to ‘do their best’ in things they are already good at, but have difficulty putting in as much effort with the things they actuall need more motivation with?
When our chldren come home with a first place ribbon, a merit award or an A+ for their assignments, it’s natural for us to show our children how proud we are of them. If they have been working very hard towards something but don’t achieve a good outcome however, it is likely we may never even know about it. This means they are less likely to receive praise towards their efforts. The conditioning effect which this develops is that our children tend to drive themselves harder towards things they believe they are good at, whilst struggling to find motivation towards the areas which need improvement. In fact, when a young person does make an effort to push themselves in the direction they are insecure about and receive neither a good ourcome or praise for their efforts, it can be very disempowering and have a destructive effect on their motivation towards trying again.
Praise The Effort More Than The Result
One of the key strattegies we can use to boost our childrens confidence in things they are struggling with is to reward the effort rather than the result. The problem with this is not that we don’t care about their efforts as much, but rather we don’t find out about them as much! One of the most important effects that home based on-on-one tuition can have is to change that. By discussing their progress each week in front of child and parents, it gives us the opportunity to recognise and praise each little effort along the way. Moreover, each bit of progress now becomes like a ‘micro result’. So now the student does not need to wait until the end of term for a positive result, but can be praised for a good result every single week. When done in the right way, over time this can have a dramaticly positive effect on emotional linkage the child makes towards their progress.
Being In Control
The aversive conditioning effect that determines which triggers will send us into ‘fight or flight’ mode is initiated during times when a person feels threatened and powerless. To reverse this effect, we must induce the opposite feeling. This means that the person must consistently have a feeling of being in control over the thing which previously triggered the anxiety response.
For this reason, it is important that the student is encouraged to be actively involved in thinking about and planning their own goals, and does not feel as though they are being ‘spoon fed’. The tutor facilitates this process by providing encouragement and recommendations. Likewise, it is important that the student be encouraged to stop and think about what progress they have made. The tutor facilitates this process by filling in the blanks, providing reminders and agreement to reinforce the student’s picture of their own progress. This process not only creates the habit of goal setting, it empowers the student with confidence in their own decision making ability.
The more the student focuses on how much they have been in control of (and therefore responsible for) their own progress, the more empowering the experience becomes. The more frequent and consistent these empowering experiences occur, the greater effect it has on constructing and strengthening new positive beliefs; especially at the subconscious level.
What Does This Mean?
The meaning we attach to something determines how we feel towards it. As described above, it is important that the student establish positive emotional connections towards their progress by receiving praise and feeling that they are in control of it. The other important aspect to this emotional connection is that they focus on what meaning they place on it. When our focus zooms in on small progress, it becomes helpful to zoom out occasionally and focus on what that change means to our life in the long run. This is especially important for high school students who may be anxious about how their school performance will affect their life in the future. When the student is frequently asked to stop and think about how their future potential now ‘looks’ by comparison with what it did previously, this can have a profoundly uplifting impact on the emotional connections they develop towards that experience. It is not uncommon for students who previously felt hopeless about their future to break down in tears of relief when they focus on how much more potential their future now holds for them. In fact, the whole purpose of getting the student to focus on becoming aware of their progress is so that the emotional meaning they attach to it be used to power the confidence cycle full force ahead.
The End Result
When these strattegies are implemented successfully with consistency and repetition, the conditioned response is eventually reversed. Stress chemicals in the brain which previousy inhibited cognitive function are significantly decreased. Memory improves, concentration improves and motivation improves. The subconscious effect changes from the anxiety fuelled ‘pull away’ effect of aversion and self sabotage, into a confidence driven ‘pull towards‘ effect of enjoyment and passion.
Coaching For Confidence is a Delicate Skill
Being able to successfully apply the approaches described above requires being very familiar with confidence building techniques and strattegies; something which our tutors are specifically trained in doing.The way in which we do this would differ depending on various factors such as gender, cultural background and especially age. For example, applying these strattegies with an older HSC student would need to be done with a very different approach to a primaruy school student. If you speak to a teenager like a child, they are likely to detect that they are being ‘babied’. They may already be feeling sensitive about their weaknesses, and will respond negatively if it feels like they are being treated like there is something wrong with them. This means that “yay, good boy I’m so proud of you” might work with a kindergarten child, however a year 12 student requires a completely different communication style.
With our assistance however, we will help to ensure the most appropriate strategies are used to have the right effect on your child, regardless of their circumstances. Even if they may not necessarily have strong aversive effects towards their studies, anxiety always plays a significant role in affecting performance and outcomes. Being able to use emotional conditioning to our advantage is always a powerful tool for driving a young person’s motivation forward in the direction of confidence and success.
Parents Are The Most Valuable Influence
In addition to our focus on driving motivation through confidence building strategies, we also believe in empowering parents to have more control over their children’s success. In fact, we believe that parents are the most influential and therefore valuable resource a child has in determining their success both in school as well as life. When you enrol in a tuition program with us, we provide you with a wealth of information, resources and advice to help empower you with the necessary knowledge to make more of a difference. You will hear from other parents in similar situations to yours, and get to find out what strategies they have used and had success with in their own child’s education. You will also get to share your own ideas and experiences whilst comparing feedback with other parents, teachers and tutors.
This guide was taken from Top of the Class Professional Home Tuition Sydney