Executive Function Strategies Blog

Beauty vs. Depression: How to Motivate Students

When I arrived at John’s house on a sunny May morning for our coaching session, he was feeling depressed, especially because he had to reread parts of Lord of the Flies and find details for an English assignment. He protested, insisting that the book was too bleak to read the first time. John had been sad for much of 9th grade and was on the edge of a complete shutdown. He asked why schools make students read books like this. Instead of answering, I asked him to take a walk with me outside.

Lilacs

The crabapple blossoms were in full bloom and offered their subtle, sweet aroma. I took a whiff and asked John if he wanted to try also. He did and agreed they smelled good. I saw the flowerbed a few feet away, filled with bleeding hearts, and asked him if he ever noticed these. He had not. Then I spotted the lilac bush with its profusion of purple florets. John said that he was afraid of bees and did not want to get close. I shooed away the bees, he took a whiff and said, “Oh, that’s what lilacs are!”

As we walked back to the house, we observed that nature abounds with beauty, bees, and even bleeding hearts. “When we got back inside”, I said, “I would like you to select three objects that are made by humans, which hold beauty for you.” He quickly selected three small stone sculptures that he said he liked very much. And then I saw the piano that lived in the same room that we had worked in all year. I asked him if he would play something for me. He leaped to the piano bench. With poise and dexterity he played, by heart, a complex classical piece. I shared that he had made my day, with the beauty that he had just created.

Executive Function Coach | Neal Elliott

As he sat at the piano bench, I asked if I might respond to his earlier questions about why students were assigned to read upsetting material. We briefly discussed the events of WWII, and how the brutality of the war served as inspiration for the author. I suggested that William Golding might have written Lord of the Flies_because he also was feeling depressed, and needed a way to express this emotion. John reflected a moment and agreed. I invited John to reconsider the assignment, knowing the author may have been struggling with many of the same feelings as John. He nodded, “I guess so. Yeah, I’ll do it.”

I recommended that he approach this assignment with a series of short, focused readings. In between, he could take a garden walk or play the piano. When I checked in with John two days and then again four days later, he sounded proud that he had completed this assignment and he felt that he had done it well. He not only gained the insight that he could, indeed, tolerate grappling with unpleasant topics; he also gained a reading strategy and motivation for task initiation. There’s beauty in that knowledge, as well.

Neal Elliott, Senior Executive Function Coach and Supervisor

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