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To Boost Your Teen’s Brain, Try Success

By on November 9, 2009 – 1:10 pm  25 Comments

Christine Duvivier, MAPP '07 and Cornell MBA, is a positive change speaker and mentor who helps her clients unleash hidden talents, develop skills, and take practical steps to achieve higher levels of happiness and success. In her career at DuPont, Eli Lilly, and DEC, she learned to lead with positive alignment and release what holds us back. Christine's model builds on strengths, challenges myths, and cultivates possibility in each individual, even if they are not currently "A" players. Web site. Email. Full bio. Christine's articles are here.

Failure does not breed success when it comes to the brain, according to MIT scientist Earl Miller whose study of monkeys is cited in the Boston Globe article of August 3: “Why success may breed success.”  When a correct response is rewarded, higher-intensity signals fire between the two learning areas of the brain.  This increases the odds that the next answer will be correct too, according to Miller and his colleagues.  To me, this seems more like Pavlov’s Dogs than true education, but still it sparks a question.

Success Breeds Success

Teen bored

Teen bored

If success breeds success in learning, then why do we set kids up for failure every day?  If we want them to succeed, we need to stop asking them to fit into a mold that doesn’t suit them and allow them the freedom to learn in ways that they learn best.   This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged or try new things (at which they will undoubtedly “fail”).  It means allowing them more freedom to find their own paths for successful learning.

More and more parents tell me they are searching for solutions to help their struggling teens.  One girl, Laura, dislikes sitting in a classroom and often does not want to go to school.    One boy, John, is a “C” student who dislikes schoolwork.  Every day teens like Laura and John fail to meet others’ expectations and in the process worry their parents.

Three Tips to Boost Your Teen’s Brain

If you want your child to fail less and succeed more, what can you do?

First, tell your child, “It’s not you.”  Explain that her interests and gifts conflict with some of what she is expected to do in school, but that doesn’t mean something is wrong with her.  Help her pursue her interests and develop her innate abilities.  For example, although Laura hates the classroom, she is already a young entrepreneur and communicates confidently.

Second, tell yourself, “I am not to blame.”  Many parents feel they are somehow not doing the “right things” (whatever those may be) when their children struggle in school.   This feeling probably results from the two questions most often asked when a child isn’t doing well:  1) what’s wrong with the child? and 2) what’s wrong with the child’s parents?

Instead of blaming yourself or your child, remember that the most important thing for your teen in the short- and the long-run is a loving relationship — and put your energy into building that.  Try to reduce the pressure you feel and ignore messages that tell you, “If you were a great parent, you’d have this child shaped-up and performing.”  Those messages are myths.

Teen and snow

Teen and snow

Third and finally, make sure your teen has activities where he thrives.   It’s not that your child shouldn’t have challenges and defeats along the way.   Kids develop from doing something they love even if they aren’t “good at it” or even if it doesn’t seem to be important.

These don’t have to be formal, structured or expensive programs. For example, one week last winter John raced out the door every day after school to play in the snow.  In the end, he created an intricate and elaborate snowboard park.   John is learning and succeeding in this project, even though it isn’t part of his formal education.

Where there’s love, energy and enthusiasm, you can be sure there’s successful learning.

Note from the author: Get more information to help you guide your child on my website:  

New! Positively Gifted, Talk Radio for Parents.  Let’s talk about what’s right with your teen.



Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™. Philadelphia, PA: Capstone Study. University of Pennsylvania.

Vaillant, G. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

Teen bored courtesy of foundphotoslj
Teen and snow courtesy of r.f.m ll


  • Maria says:

    Thanks a lot for your article it is really good, Maria

  • Editor S.M. says:


    I like the story of Laura who’s an entrepreneur and John with the snowpark. I think sometimes we see such concrete examples, and it brings it home for us. Thanks much.


  • Thanks for the feedback on concrete examples, Senia. It helps to know what’s most useful to you as you read it!


  • Thanks for the feedback, Maria!

  • Lara says:

    I love that you feel this way about education! How do you think a positive sucess story could be written into everyday elementary school work? I find that it is a little more challenging because of all the introduction to basic skills.
    Thanks for an great article!

  • Sonya says:


    I completely agree with what you are saying. It makes perfect sense that a students would do better in school if they weren’t so limited and if they could bring their own strengths into the picture. I do have a question for you though. How do you think we can change the curriculum of schools in order to allow students to have that freedom of learning how they want to. Are there any schools implementing this concept?



  • Sarah says:

    I completely agree with your article! As a student myself, I find that when my parents find the good in my “failures” I regain the strength to try again. I am struggling at the moment with the GRE and I need to find a way in which I can succeed, but with all of my failed attempts it is hard to motivate me to try again. Any advice?


  • Joseph O'Brien says:

    I’m reminded of some current educational theory that indicates that children should not receive praise for being “smart,” so much as, from very early on, their effort should be praised. The notion is that if children think that their in-the-moment performance on things directly reflects on their capacities, rather than seeing it as a progression, it can destroy motivation when things get tough, either because they become convinced from a few failures they are “not smart,” or because a “smart” kid might look at a daunting problem and avoid it, since the proof that you’re good comes from the fact that things are easy for you and you don’t want to lose your status.

    I wonder if this isn’t a more proactive version of the same thing. If we did things like this earlier on that helped prevent forming self-stigmas around school, do you think it would obviate the need for some of the “it’s okay”-ing later on? Or do you consider them to be separate issues?

  • Jenn Veit says:

    Hi Christine!

    Thank you so much, this article has given me a lot of support! I have a question, perhaps for further assurance. I have a gifted child with aspergers, which is considered somewhere between ADD and autism. It has been quite a journey so far in his life, not only for how we interact successfully at home, but particularly in social environments, since that is where aspergers falls into similarities with autism. I have come to embrace my son’s differences in learning, although being that he is very cognitively advanced for his age and always has been, it can be easy to still expect him to react at times like other kids (such as not being overwhelmed in a class over 10 kids).

    My question then is what do you say as far as all of the recent classifications or acronym labels (pick any: ADD, ODD, LD, etc….). Are we enabling our children to stagnate in their growth by distinguishing them as separate, perhaps as if we are focusing on their challenges not their strengths? Or as a parent, am I doing my job, but society has yet to catch up with the fact that we all could have our own little labels if we really looked closely? I mean, really, if everyone felt free enough to really evaluate schooling in particular, we could probably put some sort of label on ourselves that would distinguish us as incompatible in some areas with the current educational model.

    In fact, I think it would be progress if we all learned to really embrace our strengths and our successes, as you said. Perhaps the ideal of well-rounded is good on paper, but really, we as individuals need time to develop, accept, and hone our skills, and having a taste of what is available as well as being challenged by things that we will fail at is surely handled better when we have a grasp on the belief that we are competent. My son will be going to a school that focuses on his gifted side: he’s brilliant, charismatic, lively, fun, very innovative, etc…. Public and even many private schools have surely focused more on all of the support he will need, but really, his new school uses a childs successes to buffer them when the challenges arise instead of having the view that he has some glaring defect but “oh gee, if only we can manage this then we can engage his potential fully”.

    Anyway, enough with the rant, I just hope that I can get more information from every angle. As a parent with a child who is appreciated for his differences, I aspire to share input with many other parents over the years, using my gained knowledge from trial and errors and information gathered in articles like these. Thanks again Christine!

    Jenn Veit and Family : )

  • Roy says:

    I agree with Jenn Veit’s comments above, and as a father of three children with completely different learning styles, I know that it is a constant issue. For example, one of my children has a very high over-all IQ, but a very low score with regard to learning speed. In other words, it takes her a long time to figure things out, but once she does, she knows it completely. How do you see testing fitting in with your three tips, and do you have some thoughts on how to translate what they’re learning in the classroom into a message that they will hear?

  • Rose says:

    Dear Christine,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Being a mother myself, we always hope our children will succeed at everything in school. When children fail or struggle at something in school, I know I blame myself too as a parent. I have two almost teenagers both in the gifted program at their schools so they are pretty bright. Though my older daughter gets A’s & B’s and never has trouble in children. My younger daughter struggles in reading and writing though gets A’s in science, social studies, and math. Being a parent I want the best for my children, and I try everything by helping my younger daughter succeed in writing and reading though nothing seems to help. What would you recommend, since now she hates doing those things in the classroom? She finds writing and writing boring and has a low concentration for doing those subjects. How could I make those subjects fun? Since both reading and writing are essential in her education for now and in the future. Both of my daughter’s thrive in their extra curricular activities like karate and swimming. Which karate takes a lot of concentration and remembering all the moves in order. I praise my daughter’s when children do well, and I have a loving relationship with both of my daughter’s. I agree that students efforts should be praised too, though schools give out more awards to the “smart” students than the struggling ones. Do you think schools should not just single out the smart students? Since a students GPA means a lot when getting into a good university/college, since they do not take into account if the student worked very hard in school.

  • Krystal says:


    Thank you for this new look at education. It was very insightful. I was wondering what you feel is a good balance of freedom for students. You mentioned that it isn’t as if your child shouldn’t have challenges and defeats along the way. Are you saying that freedom of expression and a guarantee for success in areas outside the classroom will lead to more success inside the classroom? Or are you suggesting that this come from within the classroom as well?

    Thank you for the article.


  • annie says:

    I think this is very true. If schools are so concerned about the success of the students then why is success based on supposedly “standardized” things like the SAT?? I have many friends who were very bright and made great grades in high school, but when it came to the SAT or ACT they just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t how their brain worked, but it didn’t mean they were stupid and shouldn’t be let into a good college, although thats what society thinks and it is not fair in my opinion. However my example of these standardized tests is just one example of how unfair it can be for children in school.

  • Krystal says:

    I have been thinking more about this subject and have another question for you. I have heard many middle aged adults make comments about how little league sports and other such activities are not how they used to be. In the “good old days” there were winners and losers. Today, everybody is a winner and everybody gets a trophy or medal of some kind. Do you think that success can be overdone? Can too much success eventually cripple a child and keep them from performing at their full potential?


  • Hi Lara, thanks for your note! I know you have time pressure to cover curriculum in the classroom. I wonder if you might be able to introduce quick stories simply as 1-3 sentence thoughts, such as: “sometimes I’ve had students tell me they didn’t think they were smart because they had a hard time with math or reading. But I know that each of you has special gifts, no matter how you do in school. In fact, I read about a teenager named Laura who isn’t always happy in the classroom but she has created her own business even though she isn’t a grown up yet – and she has a special gift of being able to talk to adults easily.”

    It’s wonderful that you are looking for ways you can bring these concepts to your students! It seems to me that if you could even take 30-seconds a week– to help them understand that they each have something special and not doing well in school does not mean they are dumb– you would help them tremendously. If you could take another minute and allow them to respond, that would be fantastic too.

    I’d love to hear what you do and what ends up working for you (
    Best wishes,

  • Hi Sonya, you ask a good question. At the moment, individual teachers are doing what they can to allow students more freedom to learn in the ways that suit them. To make substantial changes more systemically will require parents, educators and voters to choose to being making changes in their systems.

    As I learn about communities making changes, I will put information on the web or in my newsletter. You ask about schools that are already doing some of these things– I have begun hearing from some school leaders on this, but I have not yet checked personally on any schools except one: Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA. They are more extreme– in letting kids learn however they wish– than most parents would choose, but their model works for some students.

    As I learn about schools, I will post information on the web and in my newsletter (you can register at if you wish). If you learn about any yourself, I would love to hear from you (

    Best wishes,

  • Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing your story! I can imagine it must be incredibly frustrating to struggle with the GRE as you have. I do have a few thoughts for you, although it’s hard to answer your question without knowing more about your specific situation. In general, I would look at two questions: is there any possible way you can get where you are trying to go without doing well on the GRE? Often, we think we have to go the “prescribed” route to a desired goal, but many times there are people who have achieved it a different way. So that is one question I would recommend you look at thoroughly if you haven’t already. My second question is this: what do you believe about your ability to “do well” on the GRE? Often, when we haven’t done well at something a few times, we can start to believe that we will never be able to do well at this. If you haven’t already, perhaps you could sit with someone who has either (1) been in your shoes but found a way to achieve his/her goal or (2) worked with someone in your shoes — and can show you a pathway you can take to achieve your goal with the GRE. Personally, I’m not a believer in these tests, so I would prefer to see you find an alternetive route to your goal, but if the GRE is essential to you, then I recommend the second approach.

    I wish you all the best and would love to hear from you (!

    Best wishes,

  • Hi Joseph, thanks for your question. Yes, you are referring to a very important point: focusing kids on process rather than an a permanent attribute. I believe you are thinking of Shelly Gable’s work and I agree with you that this is a terrific contribution to parents and educators!

    I do not think this is the same as what I am talking about, although it certainly relates very nicely. The process focus still has kids trying to “fit” the mold of education as we define our system today and even when they focus on “hard work,” they often still feel there is something wrong with them if they aren’t as quick as others or don’t get grades that reflect their effort. I think it is crucial that parents, kids, and educators understand the gifts that conflict with school and help kids to find their paths, no matter what their grades.

    Thanks for raising great points!

  • Dear Jenn, What a beautiful note! And what a wonderful approach you have taken with your son. Thank you for sharing your story!

    First of all, congratulations on finding a school that suits your son and will focus on his gifts– that is a huge benefit and will likely be the deciding factor for his thriving in life. As to your question about labels: in my study (if you want a copy, just register at, I find that kids have learning ABilities– not disabilities. So I think the term “learning disability” is mistaken.

    However, I know there is huge value for the parent and child to find additional resources to help the child learn in ways that suit him or her, so for this reason I think that the various labels can be valuable. While your son might need some of the same things as one individual with a different label, in general your son will start out with better support by fitting into a particular grouping where the kids have needs in common with his.

    I am delighted to hear from you and would love to hear more along the way ( and/or you can join my email list at and/or call into my f*ree Parents Talk Radio program, Positively Gifted (

    Best wishes,

  • Dear Roy, do you mean classroom and standardized testing? If so, I don’t see testing as fitting with my tips. Many tests don’t accurately measure what they want to measure and of course the students’ scores don’t accurately reflect their capabilities.

    Did I answer your question? If not, please feel free to comment again or email me (

    Many parents have asked me about testing so I’ll write a newsletter or an article about it soon.

    Best wishes to you and your gifted children,

  • Dear Rose, you raise many great questions and you sound like a loving, thoughtful mother! The question on your younger daughter’s reading and writing is complex but as a starting point, I would think about the following:

    It’s not that unusual for someone who loves math and science to not like reading/writing, so the question is balance. If her reading/writing is at a level where she’s likely to not graduate from high school, you’re going to want to take action to help her. It doesn’t sound like this is your daughter’s problem.

    (1) Is she reading at grade level? Although I know that many textbooks are written well above grade level, if she’s at least at that level, she’s managing. If not, I would talk with the school and with your local dyslexia association to find out what resources exist that can help her.
    (2) Since she doesn’t like writing, might she like speaking her thoughts outloud and having them captured as a written document that could then be edited? If so, you might consider getting something like Dragon Speak and Type (or maybe have her record it and then get it typed).

    If your main worry is her GPA for college acceptance, this is something you may want to rethink a bit. There are many more paths for her lifetime well-being, including many colleges, than you might know about. I’ve written many articles about these topics that you can find on PPND and also on I’ve also talked about it on my radio show (and you can find the recordings here:

    Best wishes to you and your daughters,

  • Hi Krystal, thanks for your clarifying questions! In response to your question, “…success in areas outside the classroom will lead to more success inside the classroom…” no, that is not what I’m saying and thank you for helping me clarify this point. I believe that engaging gifts and strengths outside the classroom will help your child in life. Period. It may never change anything about his/her grades, but if you think about what you really want for your child, it’s lifelong wellbeing, isn’t it? So, thank you for asking, Krystal, because I imagine others will have that question too.

    In response to your question, “Or are you suggesting that this come from within the classroom as well…” right now, I am not suggesting adding anything into the classroom. I speak with wonderful teachers all the time and they are overloaded with demands and requirements already. Trying to add something on top, without revising the overall requirements is asking too much in many cases.

    Many teachers, administrators, parents and of course students, would love to see every child’s gifts fully engaged and developed every day — but it is likely to take time before most communities are able to achieve that goal because it takes major shifts in the way we approach education as a community.

    Best wishes,

  • Hi Annie, wow, you are so right, thank you for your comment! If you or any of the people you know are willing to share their specific stories, I would love to hear them (

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Hi Krystal, I LOVE your first question! It’s something I hear often, but I’d like to turn it around and ask, “Is it really so awful to tell every child he/she is a winner?”

    Of course, some kids do better at sports than others. As someone who plays sports myself and has coached teams, I understand this first-hand.

    Of course we want to recognize gifts and talent in kids who excel at sports! Does that mean we can’t recognize what each kid contributes to the team so that everyone gets an award?

    The issue for me is this: why can’t amateur sports be fun for everyone?
    Even at the adult level, awards do not create the results we think they do — and in fact, they are problematic.

    As for your question on too much success, I think this is a great and complex question, but I do not think recognizing and appreciating every child is a problem.

    Thanks for all your great questions!

  • I want to add that excessive yawning might be interpreted as a sign of tiredness, but its also an indication that your brain NEEDS oxygen. I guess I wont have to go over it again, as the article clearly states which foods are good for easing that process.

    Once again, thanks for the article!

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