CYC-Online 89 JUNE 2006
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Pathways from discouragement to courage

Steve Van Bockern, Laurie Wenger and Julie Ashworth

The authors describe the specific adult attitudes and actions that are essential in redirecting children and youth from destructive to productive life pathways.

”... the reports really all say the same thing: “Kid has trouble learning to read in first grade; starts to hate school; his self-esteem goes to hell; and when he’s a teenager, he's pissed off or taking drugs.” – Kindlon & Thompson, (p. 35).

We look at reports concerning children placed at risk; some are so thick that you think the child is involved in the Enron debacle. We talk to stressed and discouraged parents, many in tears, feeling hopeless and helpless. We listen to teachers at their wits end, uncertain and disappointed. And we talk to youth; their failure is worn with sadness, defiance, or indifference, like a ragged but comfortable old baseball cap. Robert serves as an example.

We learned much of Robert’s story from his drug and alcohol counselor who had been working with him for several years. Years of academic struggle and minor behavioral problems at school came to a head when Robert was caught drinking in school. Over the years, the school responded to his academic and behavioral concerns with numerous reports, meetings, and consequences. The parents educated themselves on their son's labels: Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities. The parents, at their own expense, sent him to learning disability summer camps, summer school classes, and a local learning center. Over the last Christmas break, Robert attended a week-long alcohol relapse program. Several anomalies were in Robert’s reports. He was named the student of the week in seventh grade. In high school, his teachers of carpentry and small engine commented that Robert cared about his work and was a self-starter and a good worker. Robert’s explanation: “The teachers liked me in those classes and I could do the work.”

Caught in a cycle of discouragement
Robert doesn’t fit the K-12 traditional schooling concept (i.e., use of textbooks, worksheets, assignments based on textbooks, lecture, large group instruction, verbal questions and answers). His learning strengths and, consequently his interests, do not reside in the ability to easily process language and numbers. His learning strengths are most apparent when he is active and has the chance to use his hands and body along with his mind. In physical education, sports, small engine and carpentry classes, Robert does well. In most other classes, he is seen as lazy, unmotivated, or off task. That perception can be challenged. Alfie Kohn (1996) suggests that when students are “off task,” our first response should be to ask, “What’s the task?” If curriculum does not stretch thinking, elicit curiosity, or help students ask questions that are important to them, motivation wanes.

Motivation requires three key ingredients: expectations, value, and a safe climate (Jones & Jones, 1998). Humans need reasonable expectations, a sense that the work will benefit self or others, and that it will be accomplished in a secure environment. If any one of these three ingredients is missing, motivation wanes or disappears. For example, a child may value a math lesson and feel safe in the classroom, but if the expectations are beyond his capacity, motivation will be limited. If reasonable expectations are given in a safe environment, yet the child sees no purpose or relevancy, motivation suffers. Likewise, reasonable expectations valued by a student who is in a bullying atmosphere will be less motivated. Creating the right expectations is a difficult and time-consuming task for educators, requiring trial and error and support in order to modify the curriculum without over-simplifying and losing its value or expectations. As difficult as it can be, educators are obligated, ethically and in some cases by the law, to implement modifications in order to encourage the child to learn. This was not always done in Robert’s situation.

Mel Levine (2002) suggests that we need to demystify children's learning challenges. For some children, he argues, what we ask them to do is exhausting. It takes a huge amount of energy to accomplish certain tasks. Levine’s work also shows that, at times, a child's brain, for a variety of reasons, will have periods of success even with learning challenges. Children soon learn not to display these irregularities because there is an expectation that if it is done once, it can be done often, easily, and on command. Robert can bring out a sense of frustration in educators and parents because he will demonstrate learning abilities that fly in the face of his learning challenges. Instead of celebrating these times, Robert experiences additional guilt when he cannot perform to expectation. As educators, we have to constantly remind ourselves that it is only in school that we ask kids to show competence in everything: math, reading, science, social studies, art, and gym. Robert’s years were spent in this ever increasing spiral of academic and behavioral discouragement. It is a positive testimony to his family as well as a number of teachers and administrators who helped Robert get to his senior year. Getting to the senior year was anything but easy for everyone involved in Robert’s life-especially for Robert.

The all-too-common pathway of discouragement begs the question “Why?” Why do so many of our school children who begin with such promise end up so discouraged? Why do so many of our children find that their school “days” become their school “daze”? A place to begin to answer the why question is to examine pathways that lead to discouragement.

Pathways to discouragement
In the very first stage that an atmosphere of uncertainty develops, there is an intuitive sense that the child is different; something just is not right or the child is not on target. An adult, usually the parent, but often an observant teacher, will notice behavior that is outside the “norm” usually related to learning and social concerns. A kindergarten teacher will notice the child isn’t able to stay on task or has trouble joining in play. Written reports will indicate the child isn’t learning his letters or stays by himself on the playground. Often a generic “This child isn’t engaged in the school agenda” is voiced by the teacher. The emotional response from parents and school staff can be described as uneasy and uncertain, but there is not any great alarm. Interaction between parents and school takes on an air of watchfulness. There is an agreed wait-and-see attitude. At this point, nobody is certain what should be done, if anything. There is little tension among parents and school staff because they are generally tolerant, trying to stay connected and focused on problem solving.

If the learning and behavioral problems continue, the emotional response from parents and teachers is upgraded to worry and anxiousness. The same can be said for the child. There are feelings of doubt and insecurity, but hope has not yet been lost. There is a subtle but important shift in thinking from “something is different about this child” to “something is wrong with the child.” If not spoken aloud, which it often is, the child picks up the message intuitively. He has become defective in some way. Parents may begin to think that the teacher, curriculum, or method of instruction has created the problem. Teachers begin to wonder about the parent’s role in creating the problem. They think, “What is going on at home?” During this stage, the adults generally agree that some test will uncover the child's problem. Testing often leads to multiple diagnoses and opinions. One year; the child satisfies requirements to be Jon an Individualized Education Plan; the next year, a test might indicate the child does not meet the requirements. Labels like ADD or LD are given and taken away. Signs of stress among the adults are seen in such things as increased phone calls, letters, conversations in the office, hallway, and even on the street. Parents may “corner” school staff and unload their frustrations, anxiety, and feelings of concern. School staff listen and attempt to respond in appropriate ways, but uneasiness forebodes a brewing storm.

Table 1: Pathways to discouragement

Adult Thinking Adult Feeling Adult Perception Adult Behavior
Environment of uncertainty The child is slow; can’t stay on task; doesn’t make friends; disengaged from the school agenda. Puzzlement Uncertainty
Surprised Bothered
This child is different; something isn’t “right.” The child can’t stay on task. Watchful Tolerant
No negative conflict problem solving Attempted connection
Environment of raised concern

If only the child would:

  • work harder
  • pay attention
  • sit still
  • be more organized
Worried Discouraged Anxious Doubtful Insecure Hopeful Something is wrong with the child and there are problems but there might be time to provide help Test Meetings Telephone calls Conversations parents educate themselves Still problem solving Connections begin to wane
Environment of tension

If only the school or family would:

  • work harder
  • pay attention
  • change the way they do things
Perturbed Annoyed Hassled Demoralized Incompetent Someone or something is to blame. The child is lazy, unmotivated, and defiant It is the dad's, teacher’s, school's, curriculum's, etc. fault Modifications – some implemented, others not. Strained communication. More testing followed with labels. IEPs implemented. Outside help sought.
Environment of overt tension Negative perceptions are spoken aloud. The child is lazy. The parents don’t care. The teacher is incompetent. The school is not meeting its responsibility Agitated Panic Mistrustful Irritated Offended Ashamed Powerless Exhausted Teachers and Admin don’t have a clue, are inflexible and punitive. parents are dysfunctional, co-dependent enablers. Emotional defenses used: denial, rationalization, projection, and displacement. Disconnected. Problem solving replaced with authoritative demands, threats and punishment
Environment of unhealthy conflict He didn’t take advantage of our program. It is out of my hands. You will hear from my lawyer! Powerless Exhausted Out of control Nothing can be clone. The situation is hopeless. Complete disconnect but going through the motions. Problem solving is over and reliance on punitive consequences.

After years of concern and attempts to fix the child meet little progress, a kind of underground tension mounts when testing results and plans of action are not shared with those who need to know. Information is lost when the child moves from grade to grade. Paper shuffles, forgotten telephone calls, miscommunication, family stress, change of staff, and a host of other roadblocks develop. Problems arise with consistency in the case management of the child. Tension grows, and the child becomes perfectly aware that he is the reason for the storm. There is still no definitive answer to the question “what is wrong with the child?” Untrained and overwhelmed; teachers do not always follow through on modifications, nor do the parents. Blame begins to pervade the thinking of the adults; someone or something is blamed, including the teacher, parents, school system, or the curriculum.

Adults feel perturbed, annoyed, hassled, and incompetent. There is a great deal of wishful thinking that begins with “If only the (parent, child, teacher) would....” The underground tension bubbles to the surface. When modifications in curriculum or delivery are mandated by special education laws, teachers struggle to fulfill their obligations. Some, with little ongoing professional training and support, find it difficult to address the challenges. Parents and teachers will say such things as “He will grow out of it,” “I don’t believe in ADD,” “He can do the work if he wants to; he is just being lazy.” As tension escalates, nourished by a youth who continues on a negative academic and behavioral trajectory, parents, youth, and staff resort to defenses (rationalization, displacement, projection, denial) to protect themselves from the emotional pain they feel for not being able to “fix” the problem. The feelings experienced can be panic, mistrust, irritation, shame, powerlessness, and exhaustion-all related to uncertainty and fear. Problem solving is replaced with authoritative demands, threats, and punishments. Adult counter aggression takes place.

Parents with time and money may go to great expense and energy to learn about the problem. This expertise may or may not be accepted by school personnel. Parents who don’t have the resources to get involved because of money, job demands, and /or personal efficacy remain distant. Parents feel a subtle message that they are part of or the problem. Some of the parents may have experienced the same problems and dread the thought of opening old wounds by even entering the school. Comments from school personnel that indicate this level of tension include: “They only see their child's side of the story. The child is manipulating the parents.” “That mom is a “know-it-all.” “The parents just don’t care.” The escalating tension is heard in parent comments that often echo school personnel: “The teachers just don’t care.” “School staff doesn’t have a clue what is going on with my child.” At some point, often at the end of middle school, the youth feels the increased pressure to assume responsibility for learning and behavioral challenges. The tension can become so great that the child drops out of school or remains in school but becomes an in-school drop out.

Eventually, there is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, complete exhaustion, and a feeling of being out of control. At this point, the child often looks for ways to self-medicate the emotional pain experienced (i.e., drugs, alcohol, dropping out, delinquent behavior, fixation on computer games, self-indulgence). Staff at school give up because the youth and/or family seem to criticize their every attempt to be helpful. Hopelessness pervades. Problem solving is over. There is complete disconnect although people still go through the motions to meet legal requirements. The thought is “Nothing will fix this situation until the kid leaves school.”

In this pathway of discouragement, there are two significant indicators that things have gone awry. First, there is an escalating “disconnect” among the adults who are involved in the life of the young person. Second, the problem solving gives way to discouragement, anger, and punitive consequences. For some children the trajectory lasts over his or her school lifetime.

Table 1 summarizes the pathway to discouragement. We have chosen to illustrate this negative trajectory by looking at the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behavior of the adults who are involved in the lives of these youth.

Pathways to courage
Understanding the negative trajectory provides insight on how the pathway to discouragement can become a pathway to courage. Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern (2002) suggest what all children need in order to experience what they call the Circle of Courage: environments of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. To create these environments of courage even in the shadow of problems, efforts are focused on helping kids feel a sense of attachment (belonging), competence (mastery), power (independence), and worth (generosity). The pathway to discouragement that is seen so often is a trail strewn with obstacles of detachments, failures, powerlessness, and worthlessness. How is it that we can smooth the road for our discouraged children? Again, using adult thinking, feelings, perceptions and behaviors, a pathway emerges.

In the initial environment of uncertainty, it is important to affirm the feelings of puzzlement and concern and use them to move us to become inquisitive and curious. Our perception that the child is different remains but with a new twist – “how interesting” we tell ourselves. “This developing child is going to help me grow and understand.” Without being a Pollyanna, this is a time to begin to reframe our thinking. Instead of thinking, “This child does not pay attention,” we think, “This child is curious about so many things. I hope I can help him become curious about the things that I love, like reading and numbers.” Instead of “This child is antisocial,” we reframe and think “This young person needs our help to figure out how he can feel safe with others and how others can feel safe with him.”

If inappropriate behavior escalates and our concern is raised, it is important to maintain feelings of hopefulness. We take hope in knowing that our journeys can be difficult but that no one can project with 100% accuracy the future of a five-year-old or even an eighteen-year-old. It is important at this time to keep the attitude that there is something different about this child but recognize at the same time that it is okay. We can all learn from this different behavior.

Table 2: Pathways to courage

Adult Thinking Adult Feeling Adult perception Adult behaviour
Environment of uncertainty The child is developing; he is motivated and engaged even if it isn’t with the school curriculum Puzzlement Uncertainty
This child is different; how interesting Watchful
No conflict
Problem solving
Environment of raised concern

If only the child doesn't:

  • work harder
  • pay attention
  • sit still
    be more organized
  • I wonder where and how this child is successful
Something is different about this kid but that is OK. It will be insightful to teach and learn from him. I need to think outside my box. Test
Telephone calls Conversations Parents educate themselves
Problem solve
Stay connected
Relationships built
Environment of creative tension How can I:

Make sure the child's needs are met?

Change the things that don’t seem to work for him.
Let us not get into the blame game. If something doesn’t work, we will try something else. Modifications implemented and given a good try. Positive communication. Relationship building. IEP’s implemented. Outside help welcomed.
Problem solving.
Environment of experimentation Nothing we've tried seems to work. How about: major modifications, specialized help, changing the task, alternative programs? Courageous
Research is fine but it never really says what to do with one particular child. Why not do our own research? Emotional intelligence reigns. Refuse to use pain to treat pain. Build on success. Change the task.
Environment of coping It is important to build on strengths and accomplishments no matter how small they might seem in order to keep hope alive. In control
Joy can be found each day even in this situation. I see strengths and uniqueness in this child. Complete connect.
Problem solving continues. Create climates of building on strength and meeting the needs of the child.

This does not suggest a passive, accept anything kind of attitude on the part of adults. On the contrary, testing will go forward but a concerted effort to build relationships with the family and child is essential to get to the underlying causes of the self-defeating patterns of behavior. Being in respectful alliance helps put a positive spin on questions that may normally take on negative connotations: “I wonder why this child does not participate in group work or get her homework completed, sleeps in class or drinks alcohol” takes on a different meaning when asked out of real curiosity with acceptable solutions available rather than asked with an air of self-righteousness or indignation with consequences as the outcome.

Instead of letting the increased tension rob adults and the child of their strengths and hopefulness, the tension can be used creatively. We do not ignore our feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, but we hold on to our hopeful, proactive, and positive inquiry. We develop our compassion.

Compassion is much different from sentimentality or taking pity on a child. True compassion requires a thoughtful commitment and overrides pity and sympathy. When we are filled with pity or sympathy, we often give up when the going gets tough. During this time of creating courage, we engage in conversations and actions to make sure that the child is experiencing friendships and success some place during the school day and at home, and has been given the right to make choices that personally affect him or her. We look for ways to build the child's sense of worth. In other words, it is important that we are creative about finding ways to meet this child's needs. It is important that adults use their own emotional skills to keep from becoming counter aggressive and using emotional defense strategies, like blaming, to deal with the frustration and uncertainty that is bound to be present. The child's support team needs to be able to speak honestly and openly about adult behavior that is working in counter productive ways.

Creating courage may require that we challenge policy and procedure-the system-for the sake of the child. Those working for the child may find it necessary to throw out what has not worked and explore new alternatives. By building on the child's strengths, as limited as they may seem to be, we begin to restructure the task. It is essential that the child is involved in this process of strength-building and problem-solving. This is a time when our adult emotional health is necessary since the behavior of the child may trigger our own counter aggression. Our response to the child's pain-based behavior should not be more pain (Brendtro & Du Toit, 2005). Table 2 (see page 153) provides an overview of pathways to courage .

Robert goes to court today. He may end up entering a boot camp to serve time for his illegal behavior in school. We hope not. There are too many young people who spiral out of control because we aren’t aware of the meltdown that academic and behavioral challenges can produce. The pathway to discouragement can become a pathway to courage. It is a process where we are committed to coping in positive, healthy ways that build on the strengths of families, school personnel, and the child. When courage is being built, even when things do not seem to be going well, there are two distinguishing behaviors seen in the adults. First, relationship building based on honesty, mutual listening and healthy adult behavior is the foundation. Second, on-going, strength based efforts to problem solve without resorting to punitive measures stands on that foundation.


Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future (Rev. ed.). National Educational Service: Bloomington, 1L.

Brendtro, L. K., & DuToit, L. (2005). Response ability pathways. Cape Town: Pretext.

Kindlon, D., & Thompson, M. (1999). Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys. New York: Ballantine Books.

Jones, F. V., & Jones, L. S. (1998). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Levine, M. (2002). A mind at a time. New York: Simon and Schuster.

This feature: van Bockern, S., Wenger, L., & Ashworth, J. (2004) Pathways from discouragement to courage. Reclaiming children and youth. Vol. 13(4), pp.149-154

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