By Doron Beckerman
The tongue of the wise will approve of good sense, and the mouth of imbeciles will cause folly to flow. (Mishlei 15:2)
When I’m not writing pieces for Cross-Currents, I’m involved in face-to-face education. As my years in the field pile up, it is inevitable that I expand my repertoire beyond just knowing how to teach Torah, to developing techniques for dealing with the students who are less motivated. This lack of motivation can be attributed to various causes. One critical area of concern is general lack of belief in oneself as a valued person, as one who has the potential for greatness. This feeling is one of the primary indicators of an at-risk child.
It is well known that one of the basic lessons of education, for parents and teachers alike, is the necessity of positive reinforcement. Focusing only on the negative, while being blasẻ when something good happens, is often a recipe for bitterness and despondency.
There is an educational approach known as “The Nurtured Heart Initiative,” or “The Inner Wealth Initiative,” developed by Dr. Howard Glasser, that takes the above to the next level, inverting the equation altogether. The concept is that “difficult children seek intense relationships, and they quickly learn that they can readily engage and control others through negative behavior. These children can become almost addicted to the rush of this kind of relationship” (The Inner Wealth Initiative, pg. 165).
What this approach does is intentionally pour on huge amounts of positive energy when the student is doing something positive, and reflecting it back at him as a display of his own greatness being realized. This includes being specific with praise, consistency, and constantly being on the lookout for displays of the values you want to instill -responsibility, social grace, honesty, good judgment, etc.
These positive interactions will sometimes involve being creative in recognition of when the child is doing something right, or even manufacturing such situations. There are endless opportunities to see a child doing something good, even the difficult child. If you see your young child closing the door to the car, pour it on. He is showing concern for his personal safety, acting responsibly, etc. Let him know that. Put it in the context of the Torah’s appreciation of these traits – and he is thrilled to be a Jew. The point is a relentless, sincere appreciation of the child’s realization of the myriad talents he possesses, as milestones on his road to gadlus, Torah greatness.
“Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted Bnei Yisrael to accrue merit, therefore he gave them an abundance of Torah and Mitzvos” (Makkos 23b). A major benefit of this approach is that the child senses that rules are not there only to be adhered to or broken, a burden and a bore, but they are there as opportunities for growth.
It is told of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l, that part of his greatness as a mechanech was his ability to take any question asked by a student and rephrase it as a masterpiece of learning, always leaving the student with a sense of dignity and self-worth, even if sometimes clueless as to what it was he purportedly asked. This occasionally takes the brilliance of a Rav Isser Zalman. However, any Rebbe can celebrate the achievement of his withdrawn student asking a question! Energetic, warm, sincere praise for the interaction, stated as a reflection of the student’s quest for knowledge, is like rain in a parched desert for many relationship-starved, unmotivated students.
It seems that this is the meaning of Rav Wolbe’s assertion in “Building and Planting in Chinuch” , based on the verse in Zecharia 11:7, that the “rod” in the verse “He that spares the rod hates the child,” can also be referring to the rod of pleasantness. He writes: “We must recognize that the rod of pleasantness is also a rod, but it causes no pain. When I offer encouragement, it too is a rod.” Perhaps encouragement is called a rod because its effectiveness depends on the energy that is expended in its use.
On the negative side of things, problems and poor choices should not be given much attention and energy, and they thus become unnecessary as a way to gain relationships. To be sure, rules are strictly enforced, but not with high intensity interactions, long-winded lectures and the like. These reactions are perceived by the relationship-seeking child as an energetic reward, and encourage more of the same. The “action” happens when good things take place, and that is where the student naturally wants to be.
There are other elements to this approach that are beyond the scope of this piece. I would encourage parents and teachers of unmotivated or difficult children to do further reading, and ascertain whether it is worth a try in their homes or classrooms. I believe it has great potential in making many amongst our youth, who lack the crucial feeling of inner wealth, believe in themselves once again.
[Rabbi Beckerman is a Ram in Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim]