Research Paper By Helaina Aronson
(Family Coach, UNITED STATES)
As an educator with over ten years of classroom experience, I came to coaching with the intention of blending the two disciplines. My new work with children would focus on increasing aptitude and interest. For families, I would provide coaching meant to increase household harmony.
For the past year, I have worked with a family in part as an educational consultant for their son and in part as a family coach. When they came to me initially, it was because Jonathan, their eighth-grade son lacked executive skills, which is to say disorganized, which is to say an adolescent. He was doing poorly in school and it would be my job to help him establish systems to improve his academic performance.
Of course, the work was more complex than it seemed. There were two main issues to contend with that were far more complicated that disorganization: Jonathan’s understandable disinterest in school and his parents’ permissiveness.
Working with Jonathan was initially challenging. Though he was respectful, he offered very little in the early sessions, meeting all my suggestions with an indifferent “sure” that can only be infuriating when coming from a teenager. Clearly he was smart and witty. After a month or so, though he was by no means thrilled to see me, our rapport grew and Jonathan explained the reason for his disinterest to me. Like many students before him, he felt that school was boring and pointless. Though he was very bright, it provided little stimulation for either his interest in art or his character strengths.
I’ve been an educator for over ten years, but I’ve come to coaching in effort to address this problem: how do we engage our brilliant, talented youth without deadening their curiosity? How is it possible that a creative, personable, curious and highly aware 14 year-old could feel so disinterested and as a result, so angry. As psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi and others have observed,
the education system that consumes the lives of most youth does not seem to be optimally calibrated for their developing selves and that for most young people, school is a dull and uninspiring place to be
bringing about a boredom that is
so common that many consider it a normal phase of growing up (Hunter and Csikszentmihalyi 27).
I was hired to help him get organized, not for enlightenment. But here was a perfect opportunity to start the path for personal growth that could be life-changing. In addition to addressing his messy book bag and crumbled papers, we also started the conversation of awareness.
For this to be successful, I had to partner with Jonathan to understand that he did not find every single thing in life boring by finding the exceptions: his interests. Even if these interests were not available in school, awareness of what made him curious and excited-the things that are worth the challenge-could be transformative by providing him with authentic motivation. Since all learning
requires persistence and focus…interest provides…‘staying power‘ in the face of difficulty. When things are interesting, concentration comes easy and persisting at them is less laborious and burdensome (ibid 29).
This was applicable to Jonathan, who slogged through relatively easy work not because he wasn’t smart, but because it did not capture his attention for more than five minutes. In contrast, when he made art, his true passion, or when he participated in debates, he could pass hours without even realizing the passing time.
Seeing things in this perspective really changed how Jonathan and I interacted. His willingness to participate in creating techniques to deal with his disorganization increased and his bag was less of a mess. He wrote more thorough assignments about literature and history. And perhaps the greatest reward: he texted me pictures of his artwork, which was brilliant. All these changes were promising signs, but when I talked with his mom in between sessions, she expressed concern. He was still missing assignments, but there was also a growing tension between Jonathan and his family. I really wanted to help them and so I asked his parents if they would like to participate in some coaching to support Jonathan’s growth and they agreed.
Our initial conversation was illuminating. Apparently, Jonathan lost everything–his expensive clothing, his electronics. When this became known, the items were replaced and not surprisingly, lost again. In their minds, this pattern was further evidence that he was disorganized. I inquired about the tone of these moments of discovery and they described him as being annoyed with them, leading them to back off quickly. A day or two later, came the replacement object and though the relationship was no longer tense, they described the best case scenario as neutral. He was also spending most of free time with his friends, expecting his parents to comply with his social schedule. Though they run two successful businesses and were spread thin, they drove him everywhere. At this point, I asked the parents to reflect about how much control they perceived Jonathan as having, to which they answered with a deep sigh.
Like many others, these parents were struggling with how to create harmony as their child’s independent sense of self emerged. While it was true that the combination of Jonathan’s disorganization, disinterest, and developmental stage created the perfect storm, there was another dimension to this: as an adolescent, the rules suddenly changed. Life got harder in all realms, with social, academic, behavior and family dynamics all taking a leap. (Altabef) Though Jonathan
wanted to make independent decisions and be in charge of [his life], [he was] not yet ready to assume equal responsibility (D’Angelo and Omar 12).
As parents, their role was to provide boundaries and structure, forming a container for all this newly experienced chaos. (Altabef) Therefore, they needed to take an active role in helping him achieve the goal of accountability, meaning that the rules changed for them as well. But they still perceived him as a ten year old. It was time for everyone to catch up to this new reality.