By Maria Murphy
“Break it down” - MC Hammer
For anyone who knows who MC Hammer is, you may be wondering why one of the first mainstream rap singer’s lyrics are in an article about mentoring and tutoring kids. Good question. But I have to say, the words, “break it down,” from Hammer’s famous “You can’t touch this,” keep reverberating in my ears.
Lyric lore claims the phrase means either, to dance wildly, or break down the dance steps. Either way, the words do stick. And, I believe, they are relevant to mentoring. I have been thinking about barriers to learning for kids and teens. There are two enormous barriers to their success listed below, for both of which I think MC Hammer can offer a bit of guidance.
Not understanding the task at hand.
It’s so easy for us to assume kids know all the steps it takes to complete a task. But multiplication, for instance, is not that simple. It’s remembering how to stack the numbers and which side to start multiplying from and when to add. It’s several very different and seemingly unrelated steps. Let’s face it, even a simple task like making your bed is many steps attached together. Without direction, a bit of demonstration and follow up, even a bed can end up looking kind of tragic. Watch your student carefully and assess if they know the steps they need. Be careful not to assume. Kids are good fakers. They are aware of what they “should” know and many have learned to survive by covering up. By evaluating what they know, you see exactly what their needs may be.
Some kids may have the skill set to perform tasks, but emotionally are blocked because of being overwhelmed. Appraise the situation. Observe their capability and proficiency and measure it against actual performance. As adults, we know the impact that being overwhelmed can have on our productivity. Even when we know how to do something, feeling overwhelmed can stop us in our tracks. Same goes for the kids we are helping.
Once you evaluate your student’s barriers, MC Hammer has the answer. “Break it down.” It’s as easy as teaching a skill in small steps or teaching the ability to break down tasks so they are not overwhelming. Hammer’s got it. See where your student is coming from and then “break it down.” When I say “break it down,” that also means show them. Hammer demonstrates his famous dance moves on his music videos. Demonstrate your own “one step at a time” moves for your students who don't understand the task. Demonstrate the steps over and over till they get it. If, instead, they have the skills but are overwhelmed by all they have to do, show them your step-by-step moves to break it down and get it done.
Have fun, and remember, just like teaching dance moves, once you know what your student needs, you can “break it down” and instruct them step-by-step how to make the changes they need to succeed.
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Maria Murphy writes a monthly Tutor/Mentor Coaching Tip for this site and has been a presenter for Cabrini Connection’s Tutor/Mentor Conference. She is a speaker, consultant and writer. Other mentoring articles can be found on her blog column at http://www.simplyputtogether.com .