An Invitation to Step Outside

02/11/2013 03:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

As it turns out, how people behave in one setting does not predict how they will behave in a very different setting. Quoting one of the guiding principles of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens:

School success or failure is not necessarily a predictor of a child's potential for success or failure outside of school. An unmotivated student may become enthusiastic and committed after she's left school. A student who doesn't thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. When we change the approach, the structure, and the assumptions, all kinds of other changes often follow.

There are no guarantees, of course. A self-directed approach may not be right for everyone. But knowing that there are no guarantees goes both ways. We can't predict what isn't going to work, either.

In recent years I worked with one teen in particular for whom few people had high expectations. She had been having a negative school experience for years and had a difficult relationship with her school's administration due to her destructive behavior and poor performance. Her relationship with her parents was strained, and she had been arrested on minor charges. She was angry, defiant and confrontational. Things were not going well.

Then one day in school she had a confrontation with a teacher over a small issue. She asked to go to the library during study hall and the teacher said no. She swore at the teacher, using a nasty epithet. The teacher responded by calling the in-school police officer, who then arrested my student-to-be on charges of assault. My student-to-be was already on probation, so this infraction led to one month in juvenile detention.

Her parents were devastated and angry, and felt that a return to school was out of the question. Their child was out of control and gaining speed in her downward spiral, but they saw that more of the same approach wasn't in anyone's best interest. Things could hardly be worse; they were ready to try almost anything.

Shortly after I met my new student I also met with her probation officer. e told me that in his 20 years of working with juvenile delinquents this teen was the most manipulative, duplicitous youth whom he had ever known. He said, "You give her an inch, she's going to take 10 miles." He felt strongly that our vision for supporting her as a self-directed learner was wrong-headed and dangerous. Meanwhile, his method of working with her wasn't getting any positive results. The harder he pushed, the harder she pushed back. This kid was strong, tough, smart and stubborn. She would sooner go down with the ship than fall in line.

As it happened, she neither went down with the ship, nor fell in line. Outside of school and the justice system, those are not the only two options.

We gave her a lot more than an inch. We gave her almost nothing to push back against. At the same time we gave her respect, support, resources and the belief that she could succeed. We acknowledged that her life was her own and that she could choose to drive it into the ground or she could choose not to. I'm happy to report that she chose not to.

Over the next two years she learned to take herself and her life seriously. She got a job, passed the GED and started at community college. Turns out that she really loves working with the elderly. She is now on her way toward a nursing degree, with very good grades. This process was not easy for her, nor completely smooth. She has slowly and steadily learned a great deal about who she is, what she wants, how she learns and which kinds of environments and relationships are helpful to her. Her process has not been linear or predictable. She has had a lot of support, especially from her parents. While she has been supported, she has also been entirely self-directed.

I am confident that there is no one on earth who could have forced or coerced her into shining as she is shining today. She benefited from more responsibility, not less. More trust, not less. More choices, not fewer. This is not the obvious approach for working with a teen in trouble, but maybe it's worth some consideration, especially when more of the same clearly isn't working.