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The Elephant and the Rider

30 Jan 2021 3:53 PM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

 By April Pendergast, Learning Specialist at Kent School

Greetings, all. As I write this, I’m staring ahead at re-entry into school life from the holidays. The complexities of day-to-day activities have compounded this year, and even as the vaccine rolls out among our compatriots, it’s difficult to see a road ahead that leads back to “life as we knew it.” It’s hard to handle, and I’m in my 40s. I have compassion for the student population also dealing with this Brave New World.

It’s natural in times like these to seek comfort, and comfort usually connotes falling into old, familiar routines: family dinners, snuggly PJs and fluffy slippers, a warm cup of herbal tea in front of a glowing fire at night. But what happens when those familiar routines are not “good for us?” What if we have heart disease and the family dinners are full of cream sauces, carbs, and red meats? What if that cup of herbal tea turns into a cup of wine and the fire to a TV aglow with anxiety-producing images deep into the night? 

As learning specialists, we work with a population of students whose comfortable routines, by and large, do not serve them. We all know how difficult it is in a “normal” year to help students change these routines, and with the extra pressures of this global emergency, the rungs on the ladder to success for these students may seem even further apart (or caked in slippery mud and about to break). Is lasting behavioral change possible during this time? After all, we know we need to attend to Maslow before we attend to Bloom. 

I would argue that holding my place as an instrument of behavioral change for students is essential during this time, and that doing so may help attend to both the student’s SEL and academic needs; holding the process of identifying steps in the student’s behavioral chain and ways they can mitigate triggers and actions to manipulate consequences is in fact acknowledging Maslow’s levels of needs *so that* they can begin to work with Bloom’s levels of engagement and understanding. 

Helpful in putting the necessity of working with students to develop healthier academic habits and routines as they emerge from the pandemic is the metaphor of the “elephant” and the “rider,” introduced by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt and popularized by Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Research in psychology and neurodiversity shows that the problems faced by our less successful students are, by and large, not a result of a deficit of knowledge, but a deficit of behavior (“I know what to do, I just can’t do it”). Enter the idea of the “elephant:” our limbic system or “id” reacting emotionally to fight/fly/freeze in response to stimuli, and our “rider:” our vastly smaller frontal lobe attempting to steer and regulate the giant elephant on the path to goals set for us by ourselves or others.

The elephant, the “doer,” is stronger; it follows a set of entrenched familiar routines seeking comfort and affirmation (even when these routines are unhelpful or unhealthy, their very familiarity is what provides comfort and affirmation). This can frustrate the rider, the “knower” (and those trying to aid the rider by setting well-meaning, if ineffective, goals) if the rider’s relationship with the elephant is acrimonious. Attempting to force the elephant through “willpower” alone doesn’t respect the elephant’s strengths and needs, and it will ultimately undermine our ability to reach the goal. In this way, the elephant educationally represents Maslow’s levels and the the rider represents Bloom’s; in order for the rider to get to where he needs to go, the elephant must be well-cared-for. 

Thus, of course, effective change is slow and incremental. We teachers might not see the outcome of this slow and effective change in the year we row through academic life with the student, and in an atmosphere of assessment and outcomes, a pressured rider may rush a reluctant elephant… and one can only imagine where that leads. More importantly, effective change is compassionate. An effective rider knows their elephant well and sees where the elephant might scare on the path ahead; they coax the elephant around these challenges by setting an alternate course. My Catholic mother-in-law calls this strategy “avoiding occasions of sin.” For my students, I would call this avoiding triggers and practicing alternate actions. 

Because we also know that effective behavioral change happens at the point of performance, and a learning specialist’s schedule is typically bounded by the structure of the school and/or boarding day, an effective specialist can utilize their time with the student-rider not only to set goals, but to analyze their behavior chain and troubleshoot the path to the goal in a way that is respectful and compassionate to their elephant. Availability for checking in at the point of performance may or may not be possible, but setting aside time at the beginning of each meeting for post-mortem analysis might begin to set a habit of mind for this type of metacognitive awareness. I am lucky to work with incredibly supportive and dedicated colleagues in the Academic Resource Center and English Department at Kent School, and I am looking forward to testing this protocol in the coming months. 

If it’s helpful, please feel free to use this visual in your practice. Peace and prosperity to you all. 

 1 The connection here is opaque but valid and a subject for another blog post.

 2 Research shows that teacher attitude, the belief that the student can learn, is the most salient factor in determining student success, but again that’s a subject for another blog post. 

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