Controlled Burn: A Story of Growth - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

May 1, 2019

Controlled Burn: A Story of Growth

We need to help students who aren't motivated by traditional academic work find their strengths and their own paths.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social Emotional Learning
Controlled Burn: A Story of Growth thumbnail

My nephew Max (a pseudonym) started skipping school when he was a high school freshman. He did enough to get by, coming home with C's and D's on his report cards, but he continued to skip school no matter what anyone did to try to get him to be a "better" student. He not only skipped classes on a regular basis, he skipped studying. He certainly didn't do his homework. His teachers pushed and prodded, his family begged and scolded. If you ask him now, Max says that to him, school seemed irrelevant.

As Max continued skipping class through his freshman and sophomore years, his grades kept falling, and his teachers and counselors started lowering their expectations of him. They told him he could do a lot better, compared him to family members who were "good" students, and then recommended him for easy classes, including a remedial math class. Max continued to avoid school work, skip class, and make bad grades.

But then, in Max's junior year, something happened to change his path. Max—who'd seen other students involved in a partnership program with the local community college and who was independent, strong-willed, and resourceful—spoke with his counselor in the spring before his junior year. Advocating for himself, Max asked to enroll in the Tech Campus program, which allowed high school students to take classes at a community college during their high school day. The Tech Campus program provided career training in fields like health services, communication, and engineering. For Max, this was an opportunity to take classes from instructors who had trained and worked in his field of interest—firefighting. Max's counselor agreed the program might be a good fit.

At first, Max's grandmother cried. She'd raised her own children with the expectation that they would complete a rigorous, traditional high school program in preparation to attend a four-year, liberal arts college—no questions asked and no alternative options. Now, she had a grandchild who defied this expectation. Max didn't understand the need for four years of traditional English or the point of a calculus class. His grandmother worried that, because he was a difficult student, Max's teachers and counselors were giving up on him, taking the easy way out by sending him to someone else's classroom. She feared that his high school was sentencing Max to classes for students they thought weren't capable of attaining undergraduate degrees.

But in the Tech Campus program, Max thrived. He began his Tech Campus experience by taking EMT classes at the community college in his junior year. By his senior year, he was enrolled in firefighting courses.

Not only did Max start going to school, but he made good grades in his community college classes and began to feel proud of his work. He made the highest grades in the class on many tests, once exclaiming to his grandmother, "I even got the math! I knew what it was for!" By the time he graduated from high school in 2016, Max had an EMT certificate that allowed him to take (and pass) the EMT licensing test. He also graduated with college credits for his firefighting courses. Max enrolled in the local fire academy the year after his high school graduation and became a full-fledged firefighter in December, 2017.

Max—at 20 years old—has performed CPR many times; used the "jaws of life" to cut away steel to free people trapped in their cars after crashes; and fought warehouse, house, and wild fires. Last summer, he worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources as a forest-fire fighter, combating fires throughout Washington, including the Crescent and McLeod fires in the Twisp Valley. He dug line, managed controlled burns, supported helicopter bucket drops, and wrote fire reports.

el201905 hart1



How Can We Help Every "Max"?

Max was what Michael Nakkula (2013) calls a "Crooked A" student. These students' paths to good grades aren't the traditional ones, but, Nakkula notes, they "emerge at some point as top performers, although their early histories wouldn't have predicted such outcomes" (p. 1). Most educators know how to teach students who've been high achievers all their lives and for whom traditional school comes easy. But, Nakkula asks, "What about those students who don't possess such academic success, though they have the potential for similar accomplishments under different circumstances?" (2013, p. 1).

Because of his resourcefulness and an innovative program at his high school, Max found his "different circumstances," his own path to academic achievement. What about those students who don't have access to alternative programs that meet their needs? What about teens who aren't as resourceful as Max or who can't, for whatever reason, advocate for themselves? How can educators ensure that every student finds their niche and successfully navigates the high school experience—during years notoriously characterized by decreasing academic engagement and motivation?

Max's story confirms much of what we already know. Students—especially disengaged ones—need relevance and relationships to learn. Max, whose grandfather was a volunteer firefighter, grew up around emergency workers and was interested in the content of his community college classes because of that background. To him, EMT and firefighting courses were relevant in the way his traditional high school classes were not. The instructors, who had real-world experience in professions Max admired, were able to reach him and build relationships with him. While Max believed—probably erroneously—that his high school teachers only cared about his test scores, he knew that the community college teachers who had been EMTs and firefighters cared about his learning. Max, in turn, began to care about his performance.

According to Toshalis and Nakkula (2012), the most important factor in whether a person achieves is that person's level of effort, and a person's amount of motivation determines how much effort they put in. Through relevance and relationships, Max finally found his motivation to learn and, subsequently, motivation for the ongoing effort he needed to make in order to learn successfully.

Max's story, however, also highlights the fact that each student is unique. There are dozens of students in every classroom, hundreds in every grade, thousands in many schools. Establishing relevance for—and relationships with—all students in a classroom can seem daunting, especially for high school teachers, who teach multiple classes and may see more than 100 students a day. Finding and focusing on each student's strengths is a place to start.

Start with Strengths

To help all students—including "Crooked A" learners—find their paths, teachers should use a strengths-based approach. Such an approach assumes that potential exists in all students and that educators should "discover and implement the kinds of learning experiences that can help their students realize this potential" (Lopez & Louis, 2009, p. 2).

It's helpful to consider these assumptions within the structure of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), which capitalizes on the very independence teenagers seek as they move towards early adulthood. Self-determination theory posits that people achieve their best when they feel competent, related, and autonomous. Keeping these three qualities in mind gives teachers a blueprint for making learning relevant for all students.

Help Them Feel Competent

By comparing Max to family members who weren't like him and expecting him to conform to preconceived notions of how he should act and learn, Max's teachers focused on his deficits. Max came to believe that, in his words, he was a "bad" student. That belief was confirmed for Max when his teachers and counselors, likely seeking to provide him the appropriate combination of challenge and support, placed him in remedial classes with low cognitive demand.

Contrast this approach with one that emphasizes a struggling student's strengths. In emphasizing strengths, a teacher can positively impact a learner's sense of self-efficacy, or competence. When teachers emphasize students' interests and abilities, students begin to see themselves as capable. Had Max's teachers used a strengths-based approach at the start of his high school career, asking him what he was good at, what he enjoyed, and what motivated him, they would have learned that he was a caretaker who found inspiration in being helpful to others. They would've discovered that, although he struggled with textbook learning, he could easily take apart a motor and put it back together again.

Di Giunta (2013) and colleagues have noted that higher self-efficacy tends to lead to stronger academic performance. Moreover, Bandura (1997) has shown that a student's belief in their own self-efficacy is malleable and influenced by experiences the student has. Since self-efficacy is a malleable trait, it makes sense to try to raise a student's sense of self-efficacy to improve his or her school performance.

Max wasn't a traditionally strong academic student, but he was capable—he just didn't believe he was. He needed teachers to help him see the connection between what he was good at and how he learned in school. For students with interests and skills more immediately related to specific career paths than to college prep, making that connection needs to involve showing how in-school work has relevance for a job or career. For Max, it was firefighting; for others it might be fashion design or a building trade. While traditionally successful students may thrive in traditional high schools, other students need alternative schools or programs—such as early college high schools and internship programs—that emphasize career preparation. 1

When using interventions to augment a student's self-efficacy, it's important to focus on effort, not innate ability or intelligence. As Carol Dweck (2007) writes:

Praising students for their intelligence … hands them not motivation and resilience, but a fixed mind-set with all its vulnerability. In contrast, effort or "process" praise (praise for engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement, and the like) fosters hardy motivation. It tells students what they've done to be successful and what they need to do to be successful again in the future. (p. 37)

For instance, Max hadn't always been skilled at taking apart and fixing motors. But he was interested in the activity, so he worked hard at it, persisting through challenges and overcoming obstacles. If, instead of giving Max easier work, his high school teachers had helped him realize that developing one of his main skills (fixing things) had required persistence and then told him he had the ability to apply that same persistence to challenging schoolwork, they would have increased his sense of competence—and fed his motivation for challenging academic tasks.

Help Them Feel They Belong

In their research on adolescent students, Main and Whatman (2016) found that "Students who are beginning to disengage from school … do not feel valued and do not have a sense of belonging to the school environment" (p. 1055). Fostering connections between students and teachers, and among students and their peers, is essential—not only for engaging disengaged students, but also to address the social-emotional needs of all students.

Encouraging relatedness can be as simple as asking all students, at the start of the school year, to share their interests and describe their strengths. Make clear that "strengths" doesn't just mean within academic areas; invite students to describe contributions they make to their families, friends, and communities. Often, understanding how students engage outside of school gives teachers insights into students' strengths, and providing nontraditional students opportunities to share information about themselves outside of the context of school helps them feel comfortable and confident in the classroom.

Knowing about each student's strengths not only empowers students, it also helps teachers mentor each individual learner. Classmates come to understand one another's strengths, too. This allows students to act more as a community and begin relying on one another for collaborative tasks, shifting the classroom from an individual focus to a relational perspective (Lopez & Louis, 2009). Teachers can incorporate collaborative group tasks like jigsaw activities, explicitly planning them so that tasks cannot be completed alone and each student has responsibility for a specific and essential element of the task. Using group contracts to provide structure for collaborative tasks, incorporating peer reviews for authentic purposes, and providing opportunities for students to reflect on the successes and challenges of group work helps students begin to build a community that values the feedback and strengths of peers.

Main and Whatman (2016) also note that when students feel disconnected from school, they are more likely to resist teacher control and question their own ability. They may even begin to question the concept of knowledge and learning. When Max describes his high school experience during his freshman and sophomore years, he emphasizes that the rules and regulations made him feel confined and controlled. He had little curricular choice. Some teachers limited access to bathroom breaks or other freedoms. Teenagers crave independence, so this sense of being controlled can be especially destructive to them. Emphasizing relationships over control can give students like Max a sense of buy-in about classroom rules. As the classroom becomes more of a community, students focus on the value of learning rather than on resisting rules.

Offer Autonomy

It's vital to give students a sense of control over their own learning. To offer such autonomy, teachers might introduce new learning by connecting it however they can to a student's personal interests, strengths, and motivations. Allow students to individually set and track goals. Setting personal goals impacts internal motivation, which in turn increases the effort students are likely to put into their learning.

For instance, Max, who hated writing, could've researched ways that he might use writing in his future career as a firefighter, then set goals for his in-school writing connected to writing effective fire reports or analyses of building structures.

In their study on high school students thinking of dropping out, Alivernini and Lucidi (2011) observed a variety of "motivational types." The type most likely to leave school were amotivated students, those who believed they had no control over their actions or the consequences of those actions. Conversely, students who believed that their environments, particularly their teachers, supported their autonomy and internal sense of motivation had increased academic self-efficacy—and performed better in school.

A Story of Growth

Max's story, which began with the slow burn of declining academic achievement, is ultimately a story of growth. Like a controlled burn that adds nutrients to the soil and decreases the likelihood of a full-blown forest fire, Max's early high school experiences (which somehow nourished his resolve to find learning that had meaning for him) left him ready for a new start. His path may have been untraditional, but Max now sees value in his education and is voluntarily enrolling in courses to pursue his paramedics license. Meanwhile, he's continuing to work as a firefighter and is finding meaning and happiness in his work. What more could his family—or Max—ask for?


Alivernini, F., & Lucidi, F. (2011). Relationship between social context, self-efficacy, motivation, academic achievement, and intention to drop out of high school: A longitudinal study. The Journal of Educational Research, 104, 241–252.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Di Giunta, L., Allessandri, G., Gerbino, M., Kanacri, P., Zuffiano, A., & Caprara, G. (2013). The determinants of scholastic achievement: The contribution of personality traits, self-esteem, and academic self-efficacy. Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 102–108.

Dweck, C. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39.

Lopez, S., & Louis, M. (2009). The principles of strengths-based education. Journal of College and Character, 10(4), 1–8.

Main, K., & Whatman, S. (2016). Building social and emotional efficacy to (re)engage young adolescents: Capitalising on the 'window of opportunity.' International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(10), 1054–1069.

Nakkula, M. (2013). A crooked path to success. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(6), 60–63.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice: Executive summary. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

End Notes

1 Early college high school models often offer career pathways and concentrations and provide opportunities for students to earn college credits while they're still enrolled in high school.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?