How Many Tries?

Some strategies take both practitioner and client by surprise. One way that I enjoy beginning educational therapy sessions is by playing "Toss the Ball." I prepare a set of colorful numbered cards before the client arrives and tape them the wall in random order. The cards are numbered 1-10 on one side. The other side contains a mix of "getting to know you" questions and instructions for fun little activities. After the cards are placed, we play a game. Child and client take turns throwing a Koosh Ball at the cards. Whichever card is struck, is pulled down and read. We then share our answers to the questions and complete the activities together.

This little game serves a number of purposes. First, I have the opportunity to see how the child approaches the activity: Does she rush to be first? Is he hesitant to throw the ball? If she misses, does she shrug and give it another try? Do they ask if I want to go first? How comfortable is this child throwing and moving around? Second, the activity gives me a first glimpse at how the child reads aloud. I intentionally make the questions accessible for young readers by including frequently used words and decodable text. Because it is game-like, readers who tend to be inhibited by anxiety are generally relaxed while reading the cards. That being said, I am also conscious of coming in to assist right away if a child begins to struggle. This activity is primarily about having fun and establishing rapport. Third, answers to the questions help me to learn my new client's preferences, interests, and challenges without the pressure of a formal interview. Finally, moving around and tossing a ball is just plain fun! Usually, we both end up smiling and laughing as we share and get to know each other. I tailor the questions to suit the age of the child and to fold in any interests that I have already learned about from parent interviews. Everyone loves chatting about what they love. Kids are no exception. Even though it would seem simpler and more efficient to reuse my card sets for multiple clients, there are clear benefits to creating a unique set for each new client.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a relatively new client. Jeremy was a charming, kind-hearted second-grader with big green eyes and an unruly ruffle of dark hair. Although he was sensitive and deeply caring, he could sometimes get caught in a cycle of intense emotion that looked a lot like anger. At first, his fluctuations in mood were surprising and difficult to navigate. Little by little, our interactions revealed helpful clues about how to assist him with self-regulation.

One Monday afternoon early in our work together, we were playing Toss the Ball. It was Jeremy's turn to toss. In previous sessions, he had shared that he was a competitive baseball player, so it came as no surprise when he backed up further and further from the cards giving himself a bigger and bigger challenge. Suddenly, the tone of the game shifted and tears filled his eyes as he rapidly threw the ball repeatedly from across the room.

I resisted the temptation to try to fix it for him by suggesting that he move a little closer or toss the ball more gently. During our short time together, attempts to help him too soon had only heightened his upset. Instead I calmly asked, "How many tries are you giving yourself?"

He stopped throwing, wiped his eyes and turned to me. "What did you say?"

I repeated, "How many tries are you giving yourself to hit the card?" I continued, "When I am learning something new, I give myself LOTS of tries."

"Really?" He looked genuinely surprised.

"Really. When I was learning to surf, I gave myself hundreds of tries to get it right. I think most people give themselves lots of tries when they are working on something."

"Oh," he said looking conservatively hopeful.

I retrieved the ball and handed it to him, "How many tries do you think you should give yourself to hit that card? Definitely more than five."

"Maybe ten?" he offered. I nodded reassuringly. Ten seemed like a reasonable amount of tries. Within the next three attempts, he hit his target. We agreed that he could be kind and fair by giving himself more than one try whenever he was working hard or learning something new.

As we continued to work together, "How many tries are you giving yourself right now? Are you being fair?" became important reminders. Jeremy's parents reported that this quick little tip, along with finding opportunities to share examples of giving themselves more than one try, allowed him to move through the day with less upset. Of course Jeremy is not the only child who has benefitted from the discovery that we made while tossing the ball. Many other students have found a sense of relief in being fair by offering themselves a generous amount of tries. What have you done lately that has required more than one try? I have been working to complete a particularly difficult climb at the gym over multiple sessions. I anticipate needing quite a few more tries!

This idea of "giving yourself another try" is connected to a hot education concept: Growth Mindset. The concept of Growth Mindset, or believing that your brain can grow and change through experience, learning opportunities, and through a positive response to setbacks and failures, comes from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford. In a TED Talk given in 2014, Dr. Dweck emphasizes the power of "yet." Maybe a child won't hit the card on the first try, or solve all of the math problems accurately on the first test, but with practice (i.e.: multiple tries), new neural pathways are formed and the brain grows! With more tries, we actually get smarter! Children who come to see the power in effort, focus, optimism, and resilience simply do better than those who have a more rigid view of themselves.

What seems to work well about the idea of giving yourself more than one try is that it invites the child to be flexible and resilient without saying, "be flexible and resilient." It is an invitation instead of a directive. So...go ahead and give yourself a few extra tries this week. It feels great.

A few examples of Toss the Ball cards: