Is a measly 27% on a math test a certain failure?

by Helene Louise  

As I wrote in “A Little Bit of Positive”,  I ended up studying economics despite that my objective was to avoid anything remotely math-related altogether. And, on my first university-level math test, I got a humiliating 27%. I was devastated and I was certain that there was no hope of me ever completing that first year, let alone graduating. 

Academic evaluations tell us how well we know something and how we rank in relation our peers. One of my daughter’s first primary school teachers, however, had an interesting perspective, which I have found very helpful. She said that rather than looking at our children’s marks as a reflection of how well they were doing, we should simply look at them as an indication of what they still had left to learn

Obviously, there are some tests which do have pass/fail consequences, like those that determine acceptance to specific programs. But for everything else, maybe there is scope to look at things differently. In terms of my own children, by trying to look at their test results more in terms of what they know and what they still have left to learn, our dialogue has centred more on learning as something inherently positive, rather than just a competitive process characterized by pressure to succeed and a constant fear of failure. 

I think the same can be said for other areas of our lives. If there is an activity that my daughter can’t do very well because of the effects of her stroke, then maybe it’s not necessarily an incapacity or a question of not being good at something. Maybe it’s just an indication of the starting point from which we can move forward. Looking at things that way has certainly helped us to keep motivated and more optimistic, even in the face of what might otherwise be seen as a “certain failure”.

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From Illusion of Choice to First Choice

by Helene Louise  

When my daughter was small, it was relatively easy to work rehabilitation exercises into our day. I took her to the park and showed her that she needed to extend her right arm when she climbed on the play structure even if her hand was closed-up in a fist, I stretched her muscles as often as I could while I held her, and I invented all kinds of games based on the exercises that she needed to do (the “variations” that I wrote about in my book)

As she got older, however, and started asserting herself, as children do, I moved to the “illusion of choice” approach as I wrote about earlier. Letting my daughter feel she was a part of the decision-making process and had some choice in the matter, even if I had structured the choices to favour the integration of her exercises into an activity, went a long way to getting her to do what had to get done. 

The “illusion of choice” has actually been effective in other areas as well. Both my daughters have very good study habits and I think, to a great extent, it’s because they know they get the work done first, and then they can have all the free time they want. In the early years, the “illusion” in this case was that if they chose to get their work done first (like on a Saturday morning, right after breakfast) then we could have the rest of the day together after that. Within a relatively short period of time, they saw the benefits of getting their work out of the way so that they not only had the rest of the time to themselves, they also didn’t have to stress about what they hadn’t yet done as the weekend came to a close. And, with time, this approach became a regular habit so there was no longer any need for an “illusion”. 

In terms of my daughter’s rehabilitation, as she is getting older (and of course, increasingly asserting herself...), she understands the link between the exercises that she needs to do and her own progress. And, this realization has become a powerful motivator for her. For example, she wanted to learn how to cross-country ski but she was unable to use a pole with her right arm (yet...). To help her, her occupational and physiotherapists suggested a series of exercises and strategies to strengthen her arm and adapt the approach. So great was her interest in learning to ski, that she took the initiative to do those exercises on her own. Of course, going back to our “illusion of choice” days, she did them in front of the TV.

But that doesn’t matter, she is doing what needs to be done—there is no longer an illusion of choice, it is her own choice.

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The Illusion of Choice

by Helene Louise  

If you ask a child if they want to watch television, go to the park or have some chocolate, they’re very likely to express immediate enthusiasm. If you ask a child if they want to do their homework, they’ll generally be a lot less enthusiastic. And, if you ask a child who is facing any kind of physical rehabilitation to do a particular exercise, the response is not likely to be enthusiastic at all and it might even be a flat-out refusal. 

The exercises my daughter has had to do as part of her physical rehabilitation, for example, have been frustrating and tedious. Trying to stretch fingers that have never been extended, or use a hand that just “doesn’t want to listen” as my daughter used to say, is very difficult and often, even painful. Still, the only way for her to overcome the effects of the stroke she suffered is for her to work at it. As much as we want to give our children everything we can, the outcome of physical rehabilitation is not something we can give them directly, or do for them—it’s something we can only facilitate.

What I have found particularly helpful, is what I call the “illusion of choice”. For example, I might say to my daughter, “How about we do some exercises and then you can watch TV for a while?” to which she is likely to reply, “No, I just want to watch TV.” So then I might say, “No, but how about I’ll help you with your exercises while you’re watching TV so that we can get them done really fast,” to which she might answer, “OK, maybe...but only if I get to watch for an extra long time.” At that point, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t know...well...OK,” knowing that the longer she is distracted by the television, the longer I have to work in some exercises with her. And, because she feels like she has participated in the decision-making process, she is much more likely to be cooperative.

You can call it encouragement, being strategic, creative thinking or manipulation. I like to call it the “illusion of choice” and I’ve found it to be very effective in facilitating my daughter’s progress.

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Chocolate, Rats and Open-mindedness

by Helene Louise  

Some things, I know for sure—or at least, I think I know for sure. I don't just think I like chocolate, I know for sure that I like chocolate. What's not to like? And, I know what I definitely don't like. I don't like rats. Just the thought of them gives me the shivers. But, is it possible that even though I like to believe that I am open-minded, that I have been too quick to judge—even the things I think I know for sure? 

I certainly like to believe that I am open-minded. For example, even though I was told many times over many years that because of the stroke my daughter suffered as a baby, there were many things she’d never be able to do, I kept an open mind and worked hard to help her anyway. As a result, she has exceeded all expectations.

I came across a reference to a study that shows, strangely enough, that even though most of us think that rats are disgusting and only concerned with their own survival, they have actually proven to exhibit something that we associate with humans—compassion.  In the study, a rat was restrained in a small cage while another rat was free to roam around his captive compatriot with a pile of chocolate chips nearby that only the free rat could access. What researchers found, was that rather than immediately starting to eat the chocolate, the free rats chose to persevere until they had found a way to liberate the captive rat, regardless of how long it took, all the while ignoring the chocolate. 

So basically, as inherently unpleasant as I find rats to be, it would appear that even if they are given the opportunity to keep a big pile of chocolate to themselves, if one of their own is in distress nearby, they will choose to help their fellow rat before eating anything at all. That’s definitely not what I would have expected.

I still know, for sure, that I like chocolate and I'm still pretty sure that I'm always going to find rats unpleasant. But, maybe there is still scope to be more open-minded—even about the things that I think I know for sure.

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The Importance of Jumping on One Foot - Part II

by Helene Louise  

As I wrote in Part I, in the early days of my daughter's rehabilitation, her inability to jump while standing on her right leg was identified as an "incapacity" that needed to be worked on. But as time went on, despite trying hard to help her with that, it was something I eventually replaced with other objectives. Safely getting to the top of a play structure, for example, playing soccer or riding a scooter. 

A few summers later, however, I was walking along the sidewalk as my daughter skipped happily in front of me. At a certain point, I realized that she wasn't skipping in her usual lop-sided way. She was, in fact, skipping using both legs equally!! "Hey, you're skipping with both legs!!", I called out to her. She spun around and with a big smile said, "Yeah, and I can skip backwards too," at which point she started skipping backwards making up a song as she went along about how she could skip backwards. I asked her when she had learned to do that and she answered, "I don't know, I just did."

It appears, that somewhere, in the period between when I was actively trying to help her learn to jump on one foot so many years ago and that moment, she had learned to do the very thing that I had long since given up on. And, it wasn’t because she had been doing targeted exercises or secretly practicing in her room when I wasn't watching. Probably, it was just that by always being active, knowing it was OK to do things differently, having a strong sense of self and knowing how to persevere, her physical abilities continued to evolve, even as I had let go of certain objectives.

When I looked really closely, I could see that there was a slight difference in how she skipped on her right leg as compared to left one. But then again, who’s really going to look that closely to see how equivalent the jumps are on each foot, and how often do we even jump on one foot? Regardless, seeing such unexpected  progress in this case was another "tiny triumph" that I quietly celebrated as I walked along behind my daughter, as she sang, “I can skip backwards, ya, ya, ya...”

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