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Power of unconditional positive regard

Aldina Braganza

The thing I love most about teaching youth is the energy that flows. It’s vivacious, feisty, curious and intimidating, all at the same time. It’s fresh with ideas, attitude, trends and friends. I am in the midst of it all. What’s in vogue, and what is not! Like the other day, one of my first year students asked me with all the enthusiasm in the world, “Ma’am do you like K music? And without waiting for me to answer she continued, “I am totally into it”.

I bet you don’t know what K music is all about (unlessof course you are 18 years or less). Well, neither did I. I learned all about a new trend that day. Korean music is doing the rounds. The unisex look is in fashion and the interesting bit about the K thing is the challenge is more for the men to look feminine.

My job allows me this access to the youth. Hope is always around the corner for me. Age is just a number and I remain young perpetually. If not in body, in mind definitely!

Far from glamorising it, teaching is much more than imparting knowledge. There is a toughness to this teacher-student relationship. You get challenged all the time, especially with the youth. You have to deal with years of conditioning, which more often than not has perpetuated a low self-esteem. There is plenty of work to be done to say the least, but in return the rewards are exponential. You receive their unconditional respect and adoration.

My greatest joy as a teacher is when I meet my ex-students. It is evidence of the efforts that get reflected in their lives – the shy young girl now coming forth with a new avatar as a strong and confidant woman. The young girl you decided to give yet another chance, made all the difference.

Some relationships were simpler. Just a wee bit of nudging and the shy, hesitant and withdrawn youth are now owning their ideas and strengths as adults.

I have encountered many experiences but every time, every encounter always surprises me. I keep reiterating to myself as a teacher that it’s not only about the information that I impart to these young women but it’s the ability to challenge their mindset to think critically, act rationally and relate sensitively.

Every year with the same curiosity I witness their need for validation. I learn that every child wants to feel special and acknowledged. ‘Am I noticeable?’ – Such a simple need yet one that influences their decisions and very often decides the course of their life.

The truth is that children aren’t being acknowledged. Instead they are noticed only for their achievements or their mistakes. Psychologist Carl Rogers distinguishes between conditional positive regard and unconditional positive regard. We are measured against what we can achieve rather than for just being ourselves.

Our entire Indian society unfortunately gears for conditional positive regard. Our children are growing up to seek validation for their worth. ‘Please acknowledge me’, ‘Tell me that I am special, because I don’t think I am special enough’ – These internal dialogues affect the development of a healthy self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem resort to other means to fill up their esteem bank. Sometimes it could be that they start bullying others to feel strong, cheating, feeling shy, etc. There are many expressions of low self-esteem but all these expression are merely seeking the need to feel special.

Unconditional regard on the other hand is telling the child ‘I see you’, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do or how well you do it. The fact that you exist, I see you, I acknowledge you for that.’

The power of unconditional positive regard is enormous. You give the child the belief that they are capable of anything. Not in a way that is damaging but in a way that is hopeful.

So challenging mindsets is about balance. You cannot reach the other extreme shift where you validate mediocrity, instead work with a belief that they have more in them that they are not giving themselves permission to access. You create opportunities so that they get access to their potential.

Being a role model to your student is one of the toughest parts of my experience as a teacher. A teacher can also become a mentor for their student and bring forth enormous change. But it’s just not a teacher’s job. Anybody and everybody can have that influence on our youth. Sometimes just acknowledging them, asking them how they are feeling and nudging their insecurities.

(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)

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