by Darilyn Hackett, Principal, Nueva Esperanza Leadership Academy
“I can’t trust my hands!” Garrett exclaimed one day in September, soon after the school year commenced. This feeling of frustration was becoming all-too common for him, as he embarked on his 4th grade year.
Garrett has a history of disconnect with his physical self. His body has not always easily performed the functions that many of us take for granted. Garrett spent his early learning years in therapy for both speech and fine motor delays. The fine motor delays led to both physical discomfort and a lack of self-efficacy when it comes to writing. Unfortunately, this disconnect also led to other issues. Garrett’s poor penmanship made it hard to read his own writing. This often led to his doing math problems incorrectly, even though he understood the procedure. When writing a standard paragraph, he would not adhere to the rules of the page and get angry when asked to do so. PE was also challenging due to this physical disconnect.
At Nueva Esperanza Leadership Academy (NELA), we believe in knowing our students deeply. Different from many schools, we offer small class sizes and a holistic learning focus so that we may meet them where they are in their learning process and provide them with proper support to reach their targeted goals. Our instructional team realized that they had two choices with Garrett – they could either make exceptions and adaptations for Garrett on every writing assignment, or they could equip him with the necessary tools to be successful despite his challenges. They chose the latter.
Garrett’s teacher, Mrs. Romero, was not deterred by his frustration. When it would have been much easier to always let Garrett work on a computer or to give him shorter writing assignments, she held firm to the notion that he would have the same expectations as his peers. Early in the school year, he would often put his head angrily down on his desk and refuse to write, feeling that he was a victim of unfair demands and practicing learned helplessness. At first, this was a struggle for both student and teacher—but love has a way of breaking through a standoff.
Mrs. Romero would talk to Garrett and let him know that he was able to take necessary break times during his work—whether to calm down or to rest his hand. She gave him the safe space to feel, to problem solve, to decide for himself he was ready to resume his work. What she did not ever do was let him think that he would not be finishing his work, or that he would not be doing his best. Garrett knew that, although he may control the timeline somewhat, he did not have the option to ignore his responsibilities as a 4th grade NELA student. Mrs. Romero, pointedly and repeatedly, communicated to him that her responsibilities as a teacher were to partner with him in his learning and give him the tools necessary for success. This partnership extended beyond the classroom walls, with her working together with him on volleyball serves during her break on Thursdays.
Growth mindset is essential to our favorable educational outcomes at NELA. We encourage our students to see obstacles as opportunities to overcome and achieve. You will regularly hear our team members repeating affirmations to our students such as, “What’s a mistake? An opportunity to take!”, “Practice makes permanent!”, and the most powerful of all, the simple little word “yet.” Garrett has embraced the growth mindset paradigm. He works at the pace of his peers, experiences less moments of anger and frustration, and he—most importantly—knows to take a moment to breath and rest his hand when he needs to. These breaks are short and self-regulated, with Garrett returning quickly to his regularly scheduled activities. Last fall he was fond of the phrase, “I can’t do this!” Come the spring, Garrett is often heard saying with a sheepish smile, “I can’t do this, yet!”