How many times a day do we ask children to ‘try’ to do something? We remember perhaps our own parents urging us to ‘just try your best’. Yet there is built-in failure in the word ‘try’. Notice when you use this word and reword your sentence without the word ‘try’ so children will be more motivated. ‘Try’ presupposes they will find it difficult so they are expecting to give up on the exercise more quickly than if your expectation was that they could do it.
Imagine there are two boxes in front of you and I ask you to pick up the first one. You will pick it up quite easily because you assume it must be light. Now I ask you to ‘try’ and pick up the other. Immediately you expect the other box to be heavier and you may have difficulty picking it up. If I then said, ‘try hard’ or ‘just try it’, I am emphasising the difficulty and you may look at it wondering how heavy it is and even consider asking for help. In fact the boxes are the same weight. The only difference is our expectations of how heavy the second box is.
You will sometimes be presenting harder exercises and children may find them difficult so present the exercise as something they can do rather than something they can’t do and will need to ‘try’. There is an element of struggle about the word ‘try’ which is not enabling in a teaching environment. Just ask them to ‘do it’.
When children in your class respond with the word ‘try’ such as ‘Well I’ll try and do it’ or if you ask them to behave and they say ‘I’ll try’. Your resourceful and encouraging response is ‘You know you can do it’.
I asked a child recently what his goal was for the new term. He said ‘I’m going to try not to get into trouble this term’. This is not going to work. Firstly, using the word ‘try’ means he already expects to get into trouble so it won’t be long before he does. Secondly, his goal is an ‘away from’ goal in that he is aiming for avoiding something rather than having a positive ‘towards goal’ of achieving something. Thirdly, he is focussing on what he doesn’t want rather than what he does want. What you focus on is generally what you get. So we reworded his goal as about listening to what his teacher asks him to do and doing it quickly and quietly. We also discussed ways to make friends with his classmates so he would feel happier and more secure.
Judy Bartkowiak is the author of NLP for teachers available from her website also ‘Teach Yourself: Be a happier parent with NLP’ and other workbooks for children, tweens, parents and teens.