“Sometimes those who challenge you most teach us best.” Anonymous
Biosphere 2 is a research experiment that recreates earth’s ecosystem, including plants and trees. Through Biosphere 2’s research, scientists found that although trees grew faster in the indoor environment than they did outdoors, they would collapse under their own weight before they’d reach maturity. This happened, they concluded, because there was no wind in the biosphere to produce “stress wood” in the trees. This type of wood makes the tree more resilient and allows the trees to be strong enough to live to maturity.
Trees are not alone in needing challenges to become strong. Young people also need strength and resilience to become thriving adults. We all need to be able to withstand stress to survive. That’s why “Challenge Growth” is one of the five elements of a developmental relationship.
What Does It Mean to Challenge Growth?
Challenging growth involves these four actions:
- Expect my best— Expect me to live up to my potential.
- Stretch—Push me to go further.
- Reflect on failures— Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.
- Hold me accountable—Insist I take responsibility for my actions.
Why We Challenge Kids to Grow
Without some challenge in their lives, kids get bored. The same is true of adults. Research tells us that when kids have challenging tasks that fit their abilities, they tend to rise to the challenge. They also find the activities are more enjoyable and interesting than when the tasks are not challenging.
Challenging young people to grow can influence many parts of young people’s lives, such as
- Overall change and resilience
- Ability to stay focused on achieving their long-term goals
- Doing well in school
- Civic participation
- Athletic and sports achievement
- Nutrition and health habits
- Reduced alcohol or tobacco use
Challenging growth calls for a balance of several factors. Getting this balance right—and adjusting when needed—is key young people’s success. Challenges that fit with kids’ interests and abilities are more likely to trigger growth or learning.
|If Challenge Is||Interest/Ability Is||The Likely Result Is|
|Low||+ Low||= Apathy|
|Low||+ High||= Boredom|
|High||+ Low||= Anxiety|
|High||+ High||= Growth|
The Mutually-Reinforcing Cycle of Challenge Growth
When we notice and challenge young people to grow around their own interests and abilities, we are responding to their own initiative and motivation. That responsiveness builds their self-confidence and motivation to keep challenging themselves. It also encourages us to keep challenging them to grow in these areas.
If, for example, kids are doing well in school, we expect them to keep doing well. Having that expectation affects their own effort and expectations of themselves, and they continue to grow.
But, if kids aren’t doing well, we sometimes expect less of them. That, in turn, leads them to expect less of themselves, so they don’t work as hard. Breaking that cycle can be a difficult—but critical—challenge.
12 Tips for Challenging Growth
- When you challenge growth, also use another element of the Developmental Relationships Framework such as express care so the young person does not experience challenge as entirely negative.
- Be as specific as possible in giving feedback. Note what they did well and what was good about it. Contrast feedback with past examples as evidence of growth, particularly if the growth is important to the young person.
- Highlight future goals. Talk with young people about the things they look forward to or dream about.
- Expand young people’s thinking by asking hard questions, providing alternate explanations. Encourage openness to different opinions. This helps them expand their own thinking.
- Emphasize that mistakes are a necessary part of growth and learning. Praise them for hard work and using good strategies, whether they succeed or fail.
- Expect young people to do their best, even when doing something they don’t like.
- Emphasize discovery, mastery, and self-improvement more so than doing better than others.
- Challenge young people to try things that are a little hard for them to do.
- Not all growth challenges are planned or desired. Young people grow through frustrations, conflicts, struggles, and tragedies. They learn that setbacks that are part of life. Each of these can become a “teachable moment.”
- We can’t “make” young people grow by challenging them. To grow, they must take responsibility and action themselves. Adults can set rules and limits, inspire and stretch them, and set the expectation for them. But it’s their job to focus and take steps to achieve their goals. We can’t learn and grow for them
- How we respond to that failure makes a huge difference. For many different reasons, kids sometimes won’t complete a task or achieve a goal. If we ridicule, belittle, or shame them, it undermines their self-confidence and motivation. It makes them less likely to try again or take on new challenges
- If we see failure as part of learning, they are often motivated to try again. It’s important to provide care and emotional support as they work through their disappointment. In the process, they develop more self-confidence and better decision-making skills. Having a Growth Mindset helps them see failure as part of learning. It teaches them that failure is an opportunity to grow through dedication and hard work.