Like all of us, kids are searching for purpose in their lives. Each time they encounter a moment of deep learning, contribute an original idea, or have the opportunity to be useful or loved, they experience personal growth. Personal growth comes with the exhilarating feeling of finding a new puzzle piece to add to the picture of who they are. As they fit the puzzle together, they gain confidence, drive, self-worth, direction, and purpose.
You know the feeling that you have when you do something that sparks a sense of fulfillment, and that you have something to offer? Maybe you cook a meal that pleases your entire family, or you have an idea that solves a problem for a client. Perhaps you simply take the time to smile at a stranger on the street; when you see her eyes light up, you know that you have given even a little bit of joy. All of these moments remind you that you have a contribution to make, and that your life is worth living.
Since the dawn of time, humans have been searching for meaning, for purpose. They need a reason; they need to know who they are, why they are here, and what they can contribute. Kids are no different. They need to find meaning and they, too, are searching for clues about who they are every day. Most of their days are spent in school. Each time they encounter a moment of deep learning, contribute an original idea, or have the opportunity to be useful or loved, they experience personal growth. Personal growth comes with the exhilarating feeling of finding a new puzzle piece to add to the picture of who they are. As they fit the puzzle together, they gain confidence, drive, self-worth, direction, and purpose.
I have observed and worked with hundreds of students facing a myriad of school issues: work refusal, homework forgetfulness, attention issues, boredom, perfectionism, anxiety, depression . . . the list goes on. In every one of the cases, the key to long-term and sustainable improvement was helping the student find day-to-day meaning. It always begins with the individual: identifying the child’s interests, strengths, talents, motivations, and values. Once enough data has been gathered from that standpoint, we can begin to build a bridge to learning. As a child is able to more clearly define himself by the strengths and valuable qualities that he does have, he becomes more assured of who he is and stands on a solid foundation from which to grow.
There are so many ways for kids to discover meaning as they pursue interests and knowledge on their own these days, that the contrast between self-propelled learning and school learning is stark. As Richard Florida (2012) says, we live in a creative ethos which permeates all aspects of our lives. This is a departure from the conformist ethos of decades past. Our kids are straddling two worlds: they are creative ethos natives spending their days in a mostly conformist system. Because the two worlds are so different, and the school ethos is unnatural to their native ways, they can barely cope, and they often don’t. Meaning can help them overcome the obstacles.
Of course, kids for whom grades are meaningful can get by. They hook into a drive to produce, or a drive to please, and it works out fairly well. But what about those who don’t fit in or comply with the system? Kids who are outliers—highly creative, highly emotionally intelligent, or gifted—have an intense need to find meaning. This is because they often do not experience a congruent fit with life. They are different, and they are on a quest to find their place. If the work does not connect to their abilities, their own thinking, or to something meaningful, they become increasingly alienated.
There are many ways to integrate meaning and academics. These include asking wide-open questions; intertwining opportunities for creative thinking with academic content; building exploration, discovery, and imagination into the curriculum; and integrating the arts into content areas. On a small scale, it could include a teacher allowing students to choose their own project or product, topic for a paper, or book to read. It could also simply mean a teacher taking a child under his or her wing, or pointing out how creative strengths have been applied in day-to-day work. The nature of meaning is very individual, and is often built on mutually respectful personal relationships.
People might argue that “kids just need to buck up and do the work.” Yes, of course there will be assignments that are neither meaningful nor interesting that they will just have get through. However, in a typical classroom these days, most assignments fall into this category, and a solid diet of rote work is like eating meat and potatoes for every meal. Kids need a balance, and at least some time everyday for meaningful work. Meaningful work helps them to develop the internal drive to persevere.
Today, teachers are pressured by forces often beyond their control and it can feel impossible to change or influence school circumstances. But if it’s not happening in school, the quest for meaning must happen at home. Parents can support their children by clearly identifying what they love and by pinpointing their strong points. They can lift the pressure at home, and allow children space and time to pursue their interests. One of the very best steps parents can take is to find a mentor for their child. Someone who truly understands how that particular child thinks is the best, someone who will allow the child to be herself in his presence, so that she is assured that she is authentically valued. Encouraging creative pursuits is another way to support meaning-finding, whether it is programming, game design, art, music, writing, inventing, designing, cooking . . . anything of interest that allows the child a degree of self-expression and original thought.
Kids’ lives turn around when they are exposed to meaningful learning, pursuits, and interactions. When they feel like they belong and that they are progressing, they don’t need to fight the system. For many kids, school issues such as inattention drop away when they have more pieces of the puzzle put together; meaning helps them to assemble the full picture.