Decision Fatigue and Persistent Kindness

In my last blog, I wrote about ego-depletion. Another related phenomenon is decision-fatigue. Think of all the decisions that have to be made in a day: Should I get up when the alarm rings or press snooze, what will I wear, what do I eat for breakfast, what time do I need to leave to get to school on time, how will I get there, what do I do first, how do I restrain my frustrations and make the effort to contain normal impulses, etc.

As the day progresses, each decision we make depletes us of a little more mental energy. Have you ever gone home at the end of the day and can’t even think what to eat for supper? Let alone have the mental energy to make important financial decisions, think about what needs or does not need to be purchased, or even plan your next holiday. This is called decision-fatigue.

How do we support ourselves with this? We create structure and routine so that we don’t need to make so many decisions. The alarm rings, we get up. We eat similar things for breakfast every morning, we leave at the same time to get to school, we have a routine for the day, we know when we will eat lunch and where because we do the same thing every day, etc. And we know that the best time to make important decisions is when we are feeling fully-fueled.

The Third Teacher tells us about how our environment influences us. Mostly we think about our physical space, however, we are also highly influenced by the environment of our daily routine and the people with whom we spend the day.

How do we support our children with decision-fatigue? All parents and teachers know the importance of structure in a child’s life. By taking away the routine choices, we leave energy for the more important and deeper learning choices. The more structure we have, the less we have to worry about.

Helping our students know what is expected of them by modeling the expected behaviour, creating a structure to the day and keeping it, always responding in the same way to a certain type of behaviour, and being consistent. It is not about militaristic, unforgiving daily routines, it is about persistent kindness. It is about respectfully teaching our children how they might interact successfully with others, and how to follow social pragmatics so that they use their energy to think creatively, be empathetic, and innovate their world.

I wonder, if we give our children and ourselves the gift of externally generated discipline vs internally generated discipline what might we do differently?



Ego Depletion


We all know children who find it challenging to follow home, classroom, playground and school essential agreements (rules). They self-check, receive reminders, and sincerely want to ‘make the right choice.’ So, why don’t they? They know the rules, why don’t they just follow them?!

While struggling to conform to social norms (adhering to other people’s rules, resisting temptation, controlling thoughts and statements) we experience ego-depletion (Baumeister, social phsychologist).  Ego-depletion is the idea that we have a limited amount of energy to exert self-control. Every time a child needs to self-regulate and suppress an emotion, they withdraw on limited resources. This means that the next time that same child needs to display pro-social behaviour, their ability to control themselves is hindered.

Imagine that a cup of water represents the mental resources children have to self-regulate. Every time a child has to sit still and be quiet, they take a drink of water to fuel themselves. Some children need a sip, some need a big glup. The next task might be to cooperate with a peer – this might require a huge gulp of water and the fuel is depleted. By the time the third self-regulation requirement presents itself, Bam! No water left. A foolish choice gets made.

So how do we help?

Research suggests that positive moods buffer the impairing effects of ego-depletion. Laughing and having some fun seem to allow people to recover faster.

Doing a quick funny energizer in class (here), watching a short comedy video (here) or laughing at jokes with a friend might help those children who need a ‘boost.’

What is most important to remember, is that these children are trying. They want to follow the agreements of the class, they want to do the right thing; sometimes, they just have no willpower left in them and they are vulnerable to foolish choices. Our job as educators is to offer opportunities for all students to ‘re-charge’ their mental resources for self-control.

How do you help your children recharge and self-regulate?







Confirmation Bias


la petite danseuse, 14 ans

Degas shocked the art world in Paris when he showed his sculpture “la petite danseuse, 14 ans” in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. While some singled out its “extraordinary reality” many described the sculpture as follows:  “Ugly.” “Ape-like.”  “…she is an example of depravity, of criminality, of the ills of society.” … with a “face marked by the hateful promise of every vice” and “bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character.” (see here)

Today “la petite danseuse, 14 ans” is a symbol of classic beauty, self-discipline, and possibility. We see her through different eyes. Today, a 14-year-old ballerina most likely comes from a family who can afford dance lessons with parents who have the ability and the inclination to support her dreams. However, back in the late 1800’s, the ballerinas were often young girls who came from very poor families. They danced at the opera because of the opportunity it provided to find a wealthy benefactor.  Many of the girls became prostitutes to survive.

In 1891, when the statue was first displayed, the harsh reality of the ills of society was exposed. Therefore, certain features of the statue were highlighted which ‘confirmed’ the opinion that the young girl was ‘criminal-like’ and should not be celebrated. It was easier to blame the girls rather than question the values of society.

Today when we see the statue, the societal context has changed. We now highlight features that ‘confirm’ our opinion that she is composed, graceful and full of potential. Someone to celebrate. Someone to emulate. A symbol of good in society.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist (Thinking Fast and Slow),  tells us that by changing the context, we change how we compare and view situations and people. We do this subconsciously. We look for features that confirm our opinion. It is called confirmation bias.

When I saw the exhibit of Degas’ ‘Little Dancer’ and learned about her story, I wondered what characteristics in people we will be highlighting and celebrating in ten years, fifty years. Our students’ future.

We all have a confirmation bias. Daniel Kahneman said that, when faced with a possible biased situation, he asks himself, “In what situation might this be true?” Adapting that question for teachers, I wonder if we can challenge our biases by asking, “In what context might this characteristic be considered something to celebrate?”


Your Passion Follows You

What’s your passion?

Do you feel your stomach going into a knot? Is your heart beating faster? Are you scared of being ‘outed’ as an imposter – someone who doesn’t have a passion?

Or, do you find this question easy to answer, knowing that your entire being and your identity is rooted in that one thing that you love. You are like Michelangelo, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or Mother Theresa – you devote your life to your passion.

Or, do you answer with something that you enjoy doing? “Yeah, I like to golf.”

In education we are using the word ‘passion’ a lot lately. We know that deep and meaningful learning happens when we are enthusiastic and genuinely interested in something. As good teachers, we want to personalize learning and create rich experiences, so we ask our students to name their passion. Yikes! Other than the soccer players and the odd artist, most students freeze when asked this question. It’s intimidating. It implies a devotion to an activity, object or concept. Most children aren’t devoted to any one thing. Nor do we want them to be. Their job is to explore, discover, inquire, question, and create.  The things they like to investigate and learn about change constantly. You might get the best answers from our kindergarten students, when, in one week, the same student might answer that question differently every day, “Dinosaurs!” “Bugs!” “Building blocks!” “Books!” “Mud!”

Benjamin Todd’s advice in his TEDx talk, To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion suggests that the phrase “follow your passion” gets it backward. Rather than following your passion, he says, do something that is valuable, get good at it, and passion will follow you. Focus on building skills that genuinely help others and make the world a better place. His equation:

Explore + Get good at flexible skills + Solve pressing problems = Happiness/Passion.

Instead of asking students to identify their passion we can help them find great problems to solve and guide them to develop the skills to solve them. Let’s provoke them until they feel that fire igniting, you know the one, the desire to learn, to create, and to become really good at something. And when they are good at something, create opportunities for them to use those skills to help others. Students love to share expertise and help others. Imagine a community of students who aspire to become experts so they can make the world a better place.

When I was in University, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I fell into teaching due to an offer I couldn’t refuse. At first I did it. Then I liked it. Then I got good at it. I got better at it. And as I got better at it and because I developed these skills, I grew to love teaching and I became passionate about learning more to help our students.

Terri Trespicio, in her TEDx Talk Stop Searching for Your Passion, suggests that passion is where your energy and effort meet someone else’s need. “To live a life full of meaning and value, you don’t follow your passion, your passion follows you.” My passion definitely followed me.


If you can learn it, you can teach it


It is easy to be frustrated with a student, to cast blame, to express disbelief at what a student did or did not do.

“Doesn’t he ever listen?” “Can you believe she did that?” “He is so disrespectful!” “She was acting like a __ year old!” “I have told him over and over again but he still doesn’t understand.” “So irresponsible!””She doesn’t listen to me!”

Stop. Ask yourself, “What can I do differently? How can I help him learn the skills of listening, acting respectfully, being responsible, cooperating, and self-control?”

We weren’t born knowing how to be respectful, how to be responsible, how to cooperate. We learned those skills. And if we can learn them, we can teach them.

Imagine hearing this, “I tell him everyday to go and sit at the piano and play but he still can’t play Ode to Joy. He doesn’t play anything! He doesn’t listen!” That’s crazy. We would never expect a child to play the piano without being taught the skills. Yet everyday we expect children to know how to listen respectfully or show amazing self-control without ever teaching them what that looks like and sounds like.

Some children learn these skills quickly and easily, others need more practice.

Take the time, teach the skills.

Change this one thing…

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Don’t ask a child a question that you already know the answer to.

 “The objective of education is to increase possibilities for the child to invent and discover.” (Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children)

We know that curiosity leads to learning. As teachers, we want to sustain each child’s spontaneous curiosity at a high level. Yet, we kill it slowly, every day.

“What colour is that?” (when painting a picture)

 “What is the name of that insect?” (when looking at a bug outside)

“How many blocks are there?” (when building a tower)

“Is 5+6 really 12?” (when looking at a child’s error in addition)

In order to maintain the sense of wonder that children have in discovering, listen to them, observe what they do, and nudge them forward with thoughts, and statements of observation. Enter into the wonder yourself.

“Tell me about your picture.” (when painting a picture)

“Look! The caterpillar is munching on a leaf!” (when looking at a bug outside)

“That tower is tall! I wonder how tall it can get before it falls down.” (when building a tower)

“Can you explain your thinking here?” (when looking at a child’s error in addition)

Therefore, a powerful change to make in your interactions with children is to avoid the temptation of expecting children to give you back what you already know, i.e….

Don’t ask a child a question that you already know the answer to!