Willpower!

I’m missing out on the epic snow storm (epic, for North Carolina, anyway), and I’m out on the West Coast at a Learning & the Brain Conference on using brain science to boost social and emotional skills. We had to rush to catch a plane out to avoid the snow, but I’m not complaining about an extra day in San Francisco.

One of the things I was most looking forward to at this conference was a talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal on willpower. Grit, resilience, will-power, self-control have exploded as buzzwords recently, especially in education, so I was interested to hear how she would approach the topic. I’d also enjoyed her TED talk on how to make stress your friend.

Dr. McGonigal defines willpower as directing your energy and attention to those things that are important to you. Willpower is not a fixed trait or either/or, but a habit of mind that can be strengthened.

She highlighted the importance of feeling like you belong in developing willpower. Loneliness/stigma are very stressful to self and the prefrontal cortex gets affected by shame in the same way that it is affected by sleep deprivation. While feeling bad makes you want to change, it doesn’t make you more likely to change. Forgiving yourself made people more likely to get back on track. Dr. McGonigal suggested the best way to offer a message of self-compassion (to yourself or someone else)

  • Acknowledge the feeling (of frustration, disappointment, failure)
  • Remember common humanity
  • Encourage self-kindness, forgiveness, and positive action (What’s the next step that’s consistent with my goals?)

I found that a really helpful frame in considering how to talk with students who are struggling with willpower this year. It’s so tempting to just use positive reinforcement (or in my darker moments to want to make them feel bad) for not doing that work. Dr. McGonigal’s talk was a great reminder of the fact that both of those strategies aren’t particularly effective.

She closed by noting that it’s important for teachers and parents to be good role models for kidw when it comes to willpower because how you treat/speak to yourself leaks out when you’re talking to kids or loved ones.

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