- “I can never learn English”
- “I’m not good at languages”
- “I’m too young (old) for this”
- “I haven’t got enough time”
- “I am too shy to speak to anybody in English”
- “I hate learning grammar”
- “Someone else can do it better than me”
How often do you hear these statements from your students? I bet pretty often. Your teenage students might often have these limiting beliefs from their school, parents or other authority figures. These kinds of beliefs limit your students’ view on themselves and don’t let them improve. The teenage years are the time when judgments and comments from authorities are taken very seriously and, as a result, they are more painful than at any other life stage.
So, what can you do as a teacher to help them overcome these ruining beliefs?
What limitations are there?
First of all, let’s try to understand why students limit our beliefs. I have created a generalizing abbreviation to talk about the limiting beliefs — 3E2F.
The first E is Experience
In our lives, we all have positive and negative experiences. Usually, if we talk about learning something new, it’s often a rather negative experience. Because actually nobody can do something right if they are doing it for the very first time in their lives. Well, there are very few people who can, often they are superhero movie stars. For the rest of us, the following saying is true: practice makes perfect.
Having a negative experience on the first try often makes us think that we are not good enough and it discourages us from trying again. When a teenager gets a disapproving comment from a teacher after, for example, trying to pronounce the infamous “queue” word, they will think they will never be able to do that again, and they will never understand how English phonetics and transcription works.
The second E is Education
Education and background influence a person throughout their entire life. Most of the time children and teenagers don’t choose where they get their education from. Teachers tell them about the world and so they are seen as authorities but sometimes they are not as well educated as teens might have thought at first. Sometimes if you get your first teacher who tells you
“You’ll never be good at speaking a foreign language”,
you accept it on faith and never try to change it.
The third E is an Excuse
What springs to mind when you hear the word excuse? Someone trying to get away with what they’ve done? Trying to support some failure? Trying hard to comply with limiting beliefs? Here’s an example of how it might work:
“My classmate speaks much better English than I do. I’ll never get to her level”. An excuse comes up “I’d do my homework if I knew it was appreciated. I know my teacher always praises my classmate, she has always been much better at learning new things than me”.
If you look at this excuse as an observer you’ll probably notice that this is the lamest excuse of all the excuses possible.
To get rid of it students need to understand that comparing yourself to someone else is always a bad idea. This won’t help them to get any better.
In the abbreviation, there are also 2Fs there that contribute to limiting beliefs. What are they?
Sadly, by the time a student is a teenager, he or she has already been programmed to accept this faulty logic. It is created in our minds to justify something that we do or most often something we haven’t done.
The example can be the following:
“Well, I watched an episode of Black Mirror and I understood almost everything without using subtitles, but I’m a complete failure at speaking. And I won’t be able to communicate with any foreigners”.
The second F, Fear, is the scariest of all
We know that often fear is irrational, yet we still use it as a guide for our decisions.
“Will my classmates ridicule me if I speak English in front of the class?”, “Will my teacher give me a bad mark for my essay?”
Questions like this make your English students fearful of what awaits and stops them from actually doing something or anything.
Now we can clearly see that limiting beliefs don’t just limit our thoughts, they limit our actions as well. As long as you think you are not able to do something, you’ll be too afraid to try. We are all anxious to be perceived as shallow or awkward people. And teenagers trying to be cool and “right” in front of their group, trying to be not seen as “nerds” or “boring” will do almost anything not to be seen as such. Limiting beliefs are often supported by social norms. And one of the biggest centres of social norms is school. From this point it’s obvious that our role as teachers is to help our teenage students fight their limiting beliefs.
How can we help?
Help them identify limiting beliefs. Although they tend to be more or less the same, they still vary from person to person. Moreover, the reason for the same limiting belief can differ.
After identifying the limiting beliefs, go to the next step.
Help them change their attitude towards limiting beliefs. The statements that were once put in one’s head are not that easy to get out of it at once. But it’s possible to change one’s attitude. Let your students realize that they always have a choice between perceiving the believing as a negative one or as the one that can contribute to their improvement. For example, “I am too young for this” can be seen as a negative comment, but, on the other hand, that means “I have more time to learn the language”.
Substitute the limiting belief with the inspiring one. It’s human’s nature to believe in something. If you don’t believe in anything at all, this is not a good sign. To get the ball rolling we need to have something we believe in, something that inspires us and keeps us motivated. Unfortunately, some people think limiting beliefs can do that for them. Now we know they can’t.
Support the new beliefs. As you’ve helped your students go this far, make sure they don’t go back to their limiting beliefs mindsets. Help them to track their progress, make them see that something they do to reach their goal should be measurable.
E.g.: “I want to level up my English. I want to have a bigger vocabulary. If I want to get to the Upper Intermediate level, in terms of vocabulary I need to know approximately 4000 words and now I already know 2000. It means if I want to get to the point where I know 4000 words in a year, I need to learn 5 words a day, consequently, if I want to get to the point in half a year, 10 words will do”.
When your student understands what is their limiting belief, identifies how it can help them to get better, replace it with a “growth mindset” belief and track their progress, they are on their way to reach their goals and fulfill their ambitions. You are there to guide them through this challenging yet life-changing process.