Perception is a close relative of belief: it colors everything we do…and everything we don’t do. When we perceive we can’t do something, we essentially affirm that perception regardless of ability or skill. In other words, perception can have little to do with reality, although it eventually constructs a reality of its own.
The good news, however, is that negative, unproductive and unhealthy perceptions can be changed through the careful, methodical “adjustment” of behavior. The two are linked into a never-ending cycle; perception influences behavior and behavior influences perception. Want to change one? Simple: just work on the other.
Changed Behavior, Changing Perception
A middle school coach once shared with me how he taught a student to remain in his seat when students were working on assignments.
This boy was in constant motion. He would, on occasion, come completely out of his seat. The coach had an idea.
“I’ll bet I can convince you that you can stay in your seat for ten minutes with no problem, at all.”
The boy didn’t think such a thing was possible. Staying in his seat had always been difficult for him at school, at home, at church and everywhere.
The coach smiled and left. In a moment he was back with a jump rope and a timer. He folded the jump rope a couple of times and placed it across the boy’s knees.
“In a moment, I’m going to set this timer for ten minutes,” he said. “All you have to do is keep the jump rope in your lap, without touching it with your hands, until the timer goes off.”
When the timer went off, no one was more surprised than the young man to see the jump rope still placed across his lap. He grinned at the coach, handed him the jump rope, and reset the timer for ten more minutes. When the timer went off for the second time, the boy was still in his seat.
Changed Perception, Changing Behavior
Once the boy was convinced he could remain in his seat, he became certain he could repeat the challenge, even without the jump rope.
Have you ever thought you couldn’t do something, only to watch another person do it, perhaps a person of less skill or ability than yourself? Did it ever cause you to think, “Well, if he can do it, I know I can?” That’s behavioral change that grew from a changed perception. It’s a powerful component of learning.
Why was the Coach’s “Experiment” Successful?
This is a question I ask when I share this story during teacher training. It brings some interesting responses, but two reasons stand above the others:
1. The instruction was simple and doable. The coach designated ten minutes, not two hours. Also, he instructed the boy to simply keep the jump rope on his lap. He didn’t bog the youngster down with multiple directions on how to do it (“Keep your feet on the floor”; “Keep your back straight and your hands on the desk”; “Don’t rock back in your chair”; “Just concentrate”; “Don’t look around the room”).
2. There was a focal point that gave the boy ongoing feedback. He could watch the timer and know precisely where he was in the challenge.
Some folks suggest there was another reason why this experiment was successful: the attention, positive belief and affirmation of the coach. It certainly didn’t hurt. In terms of a long-term skill, the success with the jump rope was probably the most important, most useful and most remembered lesson he taught that student.
Okay, this example involved a coach, but a parent can do exactly the same thing. In fact, every day parents demonstrate to doubting children what they can accomplish.
My first bicycle was a full-size, three-speed English racer; no training wheels. Even with my father walking behind me holding onto the back of the seat, I felt overwhelmed. Knowing he was there with me helped me practice my balance.
When Dad thought I was close to being able to handle the bike, he took me out in the street where there was a slight down grade. I got some speed going, and felt pretty good about it, especially knowing my father was right there behind me.
Only he wasn’t. When I got to the end of the street and looked for my father, he was half a block behind me, grinning. He had “proven” to me I could handle the bike just fine. From that day on, that bike was my magic carpet over my small part of the world.
Is There a Life Lesson Here?
If you look back over this little scenario, you’ll note the boy did not remain in his seat for ten minutes; he remained in his seat for 20 minutes; his choice! More importantly, he knew he could do the same anywhere and anytime for the rest of his life.
A nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters, and his skill for sharing it. He the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a popular internet radio program supporting young people and their families, and every month he publishes The Changing Behavior Digest, offering tips on managing difficult children and teens. Both resources (and others) are available at no cost through his website.