Believing in Young People’s Capacity

A teacher gave me the challenge to get a really high note on the musical instrument I was learning to play, and it was amazing, because I realized I could do it. Instead of a negative challenge, it was a really positive one.

– High school student

Adults are mirrors for young people, helping shape their developing self-perception as they absorb the impression we reflect back to them. As always, our influence as adults provides an opportunity to foster healthy development, bolstering their belief in their own capacity.

Students need to see and perceive our trust in them and our belief in their capacity. As we reflect back strength and confidence we may see eyes light up or faces brighten. These glimpses of light and small bursts of confidence can represent turning points in young people’s lives. We can encourage students to see and celebrate that strength and confidence in themselves and each other.

Believing in the capacity of marginalized students includes our belief in the value, importance and legitimacy of their cultural or social group. Our attitude of acceptance and respect will colour the words and tone of voice we use to teach.

We can ensure students absorb our belief in their capacity by:

  • encouraging them: When students set goals for themselves, when they create a vision of their future, we can encourage them and support them in reaching their goals. In some cases, as they move forward, students may discover that their goals are not realistic. That can be part of their learning and discovery. Our role is to do everything in our power to support them and equip them to realize their goals.
  • reassuring and normalizing: When students experience doubts or encounter inevitable setbacks, we can reassure them by validating and normalizing their experience.
  • expressing optimism and confidence: When young people make a suggestion or share an idea, we can express our confidence in their capacity and our optimism that they can succeed in reaching their goal.
  • conveying our belief in them: We can cultivate an assumption that students are capable. When students bring a problem, or we observe unskilled behaviour or difficult attitudes, we can convey our belief in their ability to resolve the problem, learn the skill or change their behaviour.
  • being aware of our impact: Awareness of our power and influence as adults includes being aware of our impact. Students observe us closely, noticing our body language, our eye contact and our tone of voice. They can be sensitive to evidence of favouritism. If they perceive that we are encouraging or believing in some students more than others, this may discourage or alienate them. While we cannot control students’ perceptions, and at times we may need to focus on some students more than others, we can do our best to ensure that all students feel valued and important.
  • trusting them: Trust in students can be our default position. We can maintain our faith that young people are more than what they may demonstrate at difficult moments. If students do something to break our trust, we can give them an opportunity to win it back. In doing so, we keep the door open, ensuring that students have a way to come back inside. Offering students opportunities to make repairs acknowledges that everyone makes mistakes and frames them as learning opportunities.
  • keeping our expectations high: To foster empowerment, we need to communicate our expectation that each one of them can be successful in relation to the goals they set for themselves. Our high expectations, when they are set in relation to students’ own goals and vision, can motivate students to invest in their learning in order to succeed. We can ensure that all our students feel success in some way, with all our differences and strengths as human beings.

We often hear adults declare that "young people are the future". Young people as well often assert their value and claim their right to control their lives through this statement. Of course, this is an evident and unalterable truth. Yet this statement can also obfuscate adults’ primary influence and responsibility in shaping the future through the ways we prepare young people to step into this role. Moreover, this statement can serve to undermine our awareness of the need to see and hear what our students are telling us: young people are also the present; denying or delaying responding to their needs has an impact now and later on their development.

Some things adults do that don’t allow us to speak is they think that we’re ignorant or we don’t know yet or we haven’t lived long enough so we don’t have enough experience. But I think that if they listen they’ll help us create that experience. Allow us to speak out and we will receive that experience and we will be able to grow.

– High school student