At the Blacksburg New School, we believe in challenges. We believe students grow and learn when they have to face and overcome difficulties. Of course, we don’t try to make life more difficult for children, but we also don’t work to remove all hurdles that appear in front of them. We welcome obstacles that come up as opportunities for the kids, even if having them work through these obstacles may seem difficult or less efficient to the grownups around them.
The temptation to remove all challenges from a child’s life is strong. In the moment it may seem helpful, but in the long run it does not help. And we are not alone in this perspective. There are good parenting books out there to support it, such as How to Raise an Adult, Duct Tape Parenting, and The Gift of Failure. There’s a whole movement (“Let Grow”) behind this philosophy. We regularly remind parents that kids can dress themselves and remember their stuff. They can clean up after themselves and follow basic directions and agreements. They can talk with their peers and with their teachers directly. They can be sad about things. They can feel frustrated, ashamed, jealous…and work through it. They can fail quizzes and try again. They can eat food they don’t love. They can sit next to someone they don’t think they like. They can deal with challenges. And they can feel empowered by that. They don’t need the path cleared for them - that doesn’t help. Children need to make mistakes and sometimes feel uncomfortable in order to learn and grow.
At BNS, we give students a “you’ve got this” sense of things. We let them try, and we will be there to support them and love them regardless of the outcome. If the paths are always cleared for students, if they are forever rescued from feeling frustration or shame or jealousy or defeat, then those things will hit them hard later on in life. In Orange Room (1st grade), students are chosen to be a “Resident Expert” for the week. Often this will be their first time working through their fear of leading, and talking and teaching to their whole class. Students, who are initially very anxious leading up to their presentation, are able to persevere and become proud of themselves. Building resilience by overcoming challenges helps children grow into adults who can manage stressful situations (1).
In the middle school, we encourage all of the students to showcase their year-long history research project at the regional National History Day competition in Radford. This is difficult for them. They have to stand up before a small group of adult strangers and present and defend a project that they have worked hard on for weeks. Sometimes it goes great. Sometimes they are disappointed. But in the end, they are glad that they did it, that they tried. And the next year, when they compete again, they are stronger and more resilient.
And yes, there are developmental readiness issues to consider, but the earlier children are expected to do these things, the better off they will be as kids, teenagers, and young adults. College instructors frequently see the 18-year-old version of this - “I need to read the plays?” “Take notes?” “I’ve never failed a test before.” “I have to try talking to my roommate about it?” “Imagine how someone else is feeling?” And so on. If they have never done these things then it’s no real wonder why they feel anxious or depressed or overwhelmed later in life.
Because of the small student-teacher ratio at the Blacksburg New School, we are able to support students appropriately while allowing them to face obstacles so that they can grow. Overcoming challenges will help the kids to become people strong enough to deal with the world around them. They will reach high school, confident in themselves and in their own abilities.
This is a piece of the world the BNS community can change for the better. And it will matter. So, we’ve decided to let obstacles become opportunities for our students. To look for places to pull back a little. And we have seen it pay off. We give students the sense that we know they can do it, and that we help hold them to high expectations. At BNS, we believe in challenges and we know that our students will rise to meet them.
This is Essay #5 in the We Believe series, which expands on the philosophies that underpin and carry through all that we do at the Blacksburg New School.