What Children Really Need to Succeed in School… and Life (with Rick Ackerly)

Nationally recognized educator and author Rick Ackerly joins Janet to discuss how parents can foster an environment that helps children thrive in school and in life. Like Janet, Rick’s own experience and interactions with thousands of kids have proven to him that children learn best in their own time, and in their own surprising ways. Rick and Janet discuss how parents can reduce their own anxieties about what and how quickly their children are learning and ultimately enjoy and appreciate them more.

Transcript of “What Children Really Need to Succeed in School… and Life (with Rick Ackerly)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a special guest joining me, Rick Ackerly. Rick is a nationally recognized educator, author and speaker with a master’s in education from Harvard University and in his first book, The Genius In Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children, Rick explains that genius is not just about intelligence and aptitude, it’s also a word that embodies our inner soul, nature and character. His heartwarming stories as a former principal and father shed insight into children and the process of education. Rick has served as a head of five schools since 1974, and he currently consults with schools and speaks to parent groups around the country. He publishes essays on parenting and education weekly on his blog, geniusinchildren.org, so I know you’ll be excited to hear from him. So here he is. Hello Rick.

Rick Ackerly:  Hi Janet, how are you?

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you so much for being willing to come on and share with us.

Rick Ackerly:  Always my pleasure.

Janet Lansbury:  You were probably one of the first comrades that I met online, in social media. I can’t even remember how we connected.

Rick Ackerly:  I remember. You were one of my first Twitter friends and I quoted you after following you a little while. “Janet Lansbury says, ‘Children are whole people.'” And I put that on one of my early blogs.

Janet Lansbury:  It’s been such a gift to have your support, your corroboration, your insights from your very different perspective that are completely compatible with mine, I feel.

Rick Ackerly:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  Really, I can’t appreciate you enough.

Rick Ackerly:  Thank you. And likewise.

Janet Lansbury:  What I wanted to focus on with you today is when we talk about things like school readiness and how to give our children the tools or help them hone the tools that they need to succeed and thrive. And as you and I both know, thriving in school is the same as thriving in life. We need the same traits…

Rick Ackerly:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  And you have, of course, this long time perspective as a problem solver type administrator. You worked directly with a lot of the children when they were having issues. And I was wondering if you had seen certain trends, or noticed certain traits that stood out as signs that children could thrive in these environments.

Rick Ackerly:  Well, the most important research, if someone could read only one thing, it would be Alison Gopnik. She’s written a couple … at least a couple of really good books or go to one of her Ted talks. The core concept is that kids are not empty vessels to be filled up with information. They’re not so much needing to be trained, they are scientists. They are born scientists, and every move they make for the first five years of their lives is testing the environment. So every move they make is a hypothesis, and they test that hypothesis against that reality and they readjust the hypothesis, and they keep going like that.

Every minute of every day they’re studying how people react, how to build relationships, how to make friends, how to collaborate. Everything from playing with Legos to building a tree house or playing a game, eating dinner, or helping the family prepare for dinner or all of that. They’re learning how to make it in the world. So that by the time they walk in the door of a kindergarten, they have been doing research on the world for 43,000 hours.

But the most important thing, which is ignored by most schools and not handled that well by many parents, is that they think we have to do stuff to kids to get them educated. And that’s completely opposite. We have to create the conditions in which we facilitate them doing it.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, they are the experts at this, right? That’s what Alison Gopnik says.

Rick Ackerly:  That’s right. Act as if they are the experts.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, they really are, because they’re built to learn more in these early years than in the whole rest of their lives put together, in terms of gathering knowledge. So we don’t want to get in the way of that. We want to support them, understand that they know what they’re doing.

Rick Ackerly:  Yes, treat them as if they know what they’re doing.

Janet Lansbury:  And of course they need our boundaries and to help keep them safe and keep them appropriate. But yes, absolutely. I love that you brought up Alison Gopnik because I’m in love with all the understanding that she’s brought to the public about the way children learn and how, again, they are the experts and they’ve got the tools. And we do make that mistake, I think, as parents. Even when we understand this research — that they are absorbing and learning so much in these early years, it can be tempting to want to say: well, let me give them numbers and letters and colors, math problems, let me put more stuff into them. But the way that they’re taking things in is so much more profound. They’re practicing their higher learning abilities.

Rick Ackerly:  That’s right. Yeah. I think it’s very important for parents who are looking forward to school, or looking forward with terror to school or, whatever, anxiety, fear or confidence. I hear over and over again that the main thing is reading. It’s all about reading. Well, first of all, it’s not all about reading. But let’s just say it is all about reading… The average age at which a child is physiologically ready in every way is six and a half, which is why first grade is when it used to be reading is taught, quote, taught. But the range at which someone is ready to read is anywhere from three years old to nine years old. Not when they do read, but when they’re physiologically and neurologically ready to read. That varies a lot between kids. And our whole culture is: Oh my God, we’ve got to get them reading early. If they’re not reading, by the time they’re ready for kindergarten, you know they’re going to be failing.

That is like trying to take a car that’s in second gear and drive it 60 miles an hour. You have to work with the child at their point of readiness. And they can be ready for other things. If you put words in front of them and their eyes bounce off the page, that’s fine. That’s fine. See what they are ready to do and help them do things that they’re ready to do. It’ll all feed into reading when it’s time for them to read, because the entire world, their environment is so full of letters and numbers, and everybody else is doing it. At some point they’re going to want to do it and they’ll, in their own way, figure out how to do it. I mean, I didn’t read until I was in fifth grade and I got a great education. I went to Williams College, I went to Harvard graduate school and I’ve written the books. It’s not a killer if you can’t read.

Janet Lansbury:  How was that handled when you were in school? Because that’s, of course, the danger when we do try to harness some types of knowledge that children aren’t ready for, that they lose confidence in themselves as learners. What gets thwarted is this most precious thing that we have, which is I’m capable, I can do things, I can learn, and I know what I’m doing. That is the precious part that we don’t want to interfere with. How did that go for you? Were you made to feel less than, or …

Rick Ackerly:  Let’s start with the blessings that made it easier. The first is that my parents didn’t let on much that they were anxious about it, and they didn’t feed that anxiety to me. They acted as if I’m accountable to my teacher and the teacher’s accountable for doing whatever is necessary to get me to read. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read, it was that I was a slow reader. It didn’t feel good to be behind other people in reading. I do remember in first grade we were sitting in circles and we were literally reading: “See Jane run.” There was those books. And Johnny read, “See Jane run, look, look, look.” And then it got to me and I haltingly read the words that were in front of me, and we went around the circle and it was okay. A week later or something like that, maybe the next day, Johnny is in a different group and I’m in this group and I said, “Wait, why is Johnny in that other group?” A: Johnny was my friend and, B: I compared myself to Johnny.

I used Johnny as sort of a benchmark for how I was doing and I thought I was keeping up with him. And the teacher said, “That’s the good reading group and you’re in the slow reading group.”

And I went, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s not correct. I’ve been comparing myself to Johnny and we’re the same.”

She said, “No you aren’t. He’s a better reader than you.”

And that was a blow. That was not good. It didn’t ruin me. And I kept trying to read and my parents had books by the side of my bed, mostly picture books. But I learned how to read. But one of the real blessings I had is that dyslexia hadn’t been invented yet. I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with dyslexia, but it wouldn’t have done me any good. I needed to learn how to read in my own way. And the entire environment was conspiring to get me to read.

I did. I’m still a slow reader because I read every word and I think about it and I go back. My wife, who’s a very fast reader says, “Everybody says I’m a good reader and you’re a bad reader. But the thing is, I can read a whole book in a weekend, but I don’t remember a thing. And you remember everything you read.” So who’s the good reader and who’s a bad reader? Schools and parents need to be very careful about getting all bent out of shape about reading, and especially at an early age because there are so many other pathways to success. Not that there’s nothing to worry about, but worrying is not that constructive. That’s all.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. It’s that thing of children not being able to learn as well when there’s too much stress in the environment.

Rick Ackerly: Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  And what you’re also reminding me of with your comment about comprehension is that, when children are younger, there are some children that are vocalizing language much earlier than others. Parents get worried about that and, yes, of course, like you said, there are things to look at and maybe get checked at some point, but oftentimes that child is comprehending just as much, if not more, than the child who’s speaking.

Rick Ackerly:  Yes. It’s one of the neuroses in our society. Get there quicker, faster, sooner, and you’ll be better.

Janet Lansbury:  Right.

Rick Ackerly:  So one of my daughters, she’s a teacher, she has three sons. None of them spoke at all fluently until four and a half years old. None of them. I don’t know why. But under those circumstances, a lot of people, including me, might be inclined to think: Well, they just don’t know what’s going on. Maybe they’re even stupid. They don’t seem to know stuff.

That was wrong. They are so observant. They’re picking up everything. The words that we spoke to them were in their head. And it really became clear to me when the first one, from between four and a half and five, he started to stutter and his mother said, “Gee, maybe we should get him tested.” And I said, “Well, let’s just wait a little bit.”

I had a hypothesis that he’s having a motor problem. He knows the words, he hears the words, he knows the meaning, he knows what’s going on, but there’s some glitch between that and it coming out of his mouth. And sure enough, his stuttering was about working through this motor problem. By five, he was speaking quite fluently. He’s 11 now, he’s getting good grades in school, and you should see him in action. Absolutely no dysfunction whatsoever. He’s right up there with everybody else. But just another example of, in our society, one of the neuroses is the faster you move up the ladder, the smarter, better, more successful you will be, and that’s wrong. It’s just not correct. There’s no data to support that at all.

Janet Lansbury:  The only thing I feel like earlier is better in is for the parents to start trusting their child as a capable person. Because the comprehension thing, I see it in infants. When you start talking to infants about what you’re doing with them, they respond as if they understand, because they do. So a child who’s speaking at age two, let’s say, speaking words, has absorbed all this language for years already.

Rick Ackerly:  And that’s kind of what I was saying about my grandsons. It’s not that they didn’t understand. It’s not that they didn’t know the words and they couldn’t follow the directions, and it wasn’t that they didn’t know what was going on. But to make like it’s a problem is a mistake. It’s just how they’re developing. And that’s sort of a theme running through everything you say, and what you said in the very beginning. The first step is to believe in them, know that in their own peculiar, sometimes distressing way, they will develop.

Janet Lansbury:  And Magda Gerber said this all along, not these exact words, but why can’t we enjoy what children are doing instead of focusing on what they’re not doing? And that aligns directly with your book, The Genius In Every Child.

Rick Ackerly:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  As parents we’re always going to worry about something. There’s always something to worry about. I know that I have three children, they’re all adults now. I’m always worried about them. So, to tame our own worries and take that leap of faith to trust, it is very challenging. It’s not easy. But it’s so important that we encourage what our child does have. And that not only helps them to hone those talents and foster them, but it helps them on this most important level of the self confidence, the belief in self as able.

Rick Ackerly:  So Howard Gardner is important because he shows that one’s intelligence, one’s self, one’s way of manifesting in the world, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at will show up in a wide variety of ways. There are all sorts of different ways that the complex organism of the brain organizes itself. For instance, when I was a kid, I was always on the floor of building things. I played with blocks and the precursors of Legos, and nobody would have said, “Oh, that’s going to really help you in math someday.” But it did.

I can literally say that… when was it? In fifth grade we started multiplying and dividing fractions. It was not at all a surprise to me that four times one over two equals two, because we had a block, and then we had half blocks and four half blocks equals a double. That was built into my brain from block building. So it was easy when it came time to put symbols to it.

The other people who hadn’t been building with blocks found it very difficult. It’s just another way of saying what you’ve been saying all along and what Gerber says is trust their way of approaching the world, of doing their research on the world, of diagnosing the world, and support it and engage with it. Ask questions, participate. Make it your research project.

Gosh, how does he learn? How does she handle this? And they come home, “So and so’s picking on me.”

“Well, tell me about that. How does that work? Tell me what exactly what happened on the playground.” Right?

“What did she do? What did you do?” Not with any sort of: I’ve got to solve this problem. Because it’s not your problem. It’s the kid’s problem.

Janet Lansbury:  Exactly. Is that what you did as an administrator when …?

Rick Ackerly:  Oh yeah. So the normal thing to do is if two kids — third graders — are fighting on the playground or something like that and they’re sent to my office, the normal thing to do is sit them both down and say, “What’s your side of the story? What’s your side of the story?” Because it takes two to tango. Well, it may take two to tango, but that’s not the best way to empower each child to become better and better at negotiating the world.

I would send one into the hall to sit in a chair in the hallway while I talked to one of them. And I would say, “What did you do to get yourself here?”

And the child might say, “I didn’t do anything. The teacher’s being unfair.”

“Okay, but what did you do?”

“Well, it’s no fair because she …”

“Okay, the next word out of your mouth has to be ‘I’ and then there’s a verb and then you can say anything you want. I what?”

“Poked my finger in his eye.”


In other words, I’m trying to maximize everybody’s responsibility. 100%- zero, not 50/50. Sure, technically it takes two to tango, but that’s disempowering. I want every kid to know how not to get sent to my office.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s brilliant.

Rick Ackerly:  On their own. “Okay, you made a mistake, yeah. What are you going to do about it? Okay, say you’re sorry? Will that work, will that be sufficient? It’s not sufficient. What do you have to do? Well, maybe you have to … ”

All problem solving. That person in front of me is the only person that matters right now. The person out in the hallway, that’ll come. The teacher who wants to make sure I handle the problem properly, that’ll happen later. But that student in front of me is the only thing that matters right now. And what matters about that student? Their empowerment, their self actualization, their ability to do what they want to with their lives, and they probably don’t want to spend in the headmaster’s office.

So then I just send that person out, bring the other person in and I do the same thing. And maybe, it depends on what they say, they might both come back in and they’d both say something to each other.

And I’d say to one, “Did that fix the problem?”


And I’d say to the other, “Did that fix the problem?”


“Okay. Do you have to do anything else?”

“Yeah, I think we better go talk to the teacher.”

But it’s all their self-determination. We have to empower their ability to make something of themselves. That’s the whole thing.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s great. I think you’ve actually answered my other question, which was what to do as parents if maybe we haven’t given our child this space to develop their own talents and their own view of the world? What if we we’re coming to this later and we want to make changes? And I think your answer… it sounds like would be: “Just open it up now. Empower them now. Be curious about them, give them ownership of their lives and their conflicts, and just make that change at any time.”

Rick Ackerly:  Right. And we’re not giving this to them. They have it. Their inclination to self-determine, they come into the world with it. We’re respecting it. We’re appreciating it. Working with it.

Janet Lansbury:  Exactly. We’re acknowledging that it has been there the whole time. There was a quote that I actually shared yesterday and it got a very big response on one of my pages. It’s from Seth Godin. It just sounds spot on for your book, The Genius In Every Child and also the work that I do with infants and toddlers and preschoolers. He says, “My proposed solution is simple. Don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions. They don’t want to go. Instead, find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. Then get out of the way.”

Rick Ackerly:  And I agree with that. Except the “get out of the way” part. Yes, don’t be in the way, but go hand in hand, or at least follow them. I am not for leaving your kids alone so much as building a relationship with them that respects their autonomy and their drive for self-determination. And you have to play your role, which is to set boundaries maybe sometimes. They’re actually looking to you, who has, what? 30 to 40 years of experience, to know stuff that they don’t know. Yes, I am a scientist. Yes, I will investigate the world. Yes, I’m going to determine my own life. But you know a lot more, so you could whisper something in my ear.

Not wanting to be an authoritarian doesn’t mean you ought to keep your mouth shut. You have all sorts of things you could tell them about what might be a better move, as long as you’re not implying that they’re not very good at making decisions. But have a relationship with them, make sure they know they’re loved, they need to know that you’ve got their back.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely. And I would also add that as parents, if we can learn to let go of those worries, the hovering, and that super interventionist approach, we can enjoy who our child is. It’s a process of discovery. It’s much more fun as a parent than trying to second guess and maybe fail because I’ve spent a lot of money putting you into this and putting you into that thing that I thought would be the best, and it didn’t work. So we can free ourselves of all of that.

A wonderful thing about parents today that I’ve noticed is that they want to be more involved, and that’s great. You can be so involved, as you’re saying, in an enjoyment and fostering level that’s so healthy and wonderful for your child and it builds an amazing relationship. It doesn’t need to be: well, either I’m involved and I’m hovering and taking over or I’m not involved at all. I’m out of the way and I don’t care about them and I’m just standing back.

No, as you said, we can be right there observing and supporting, if we can work on taking our worries out of the picture. If we can take our own: oh, I’ve got a better idea for how these blocks should go out of the picture. If we just put these blocks over here, I could teach him red because there’s a red one.

I know that I get so many great ideas as a teacher with young children when they’re playing and I feel them all coming up and I try to pause and tell myself: Oh no, just wait and see. They always surprise you with something much more interesting because it comes from them. This can be the joy of parenting, watching our child unfold, what Seth Godin calls the weirdness, or you call the genius.

Rick Ackerly:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  I love Magda Gerber’s magic word “wait” too. So waiting a little first, because they may figure it out in a different way. So just being in that more responsive mode. Now I see my child is really stuck and I’ve given it that wait moment or two, and now maybe I can give them some kind of minimal guidance so that they could do more.

Well, Rick, I just want to tell everyone, if you haven’t already, please check out Rick’s book, The Genius In Every Child. I’ll be linking to it in the transcript and I’ve been recommending it on my website for… forever. You’ll find that, again, it’s very compatible with everything that I talk about in early childhood, but it really takes it a step further because of Rick’s incredible experience as a school head and inspirer of not only children, but adults and teachers. He’s a blessing. So thank you so much Rick, and we’ll do it again, I hope.

Rick Ackerly:  Good. I hope so too. It’s always good to talk to you.

Also, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

Rick Ackerly’s book is available here: The Genius in Every Child


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I am a teacher and a parent of a young child, and I deeply believe in trusting children, their interests and strengths, and meeting them where they’re at at the moment instead of forcing them to a place they’re not ready to go.

    However, as a white person with socioeconomic privilege, I’ve also been thinking a lot as an educator about how my perspective on letting kids naturally and organically develop may be coming from this place of privilege. For many families, school is where their kids should go to learn hard skills (including reading) so they can be in good stead to do well in high school, go to college, and get a ‘good’ job. I think of the readings of Lisa Delpit and the importance of marginalized students gaining skills so as to have access to the codes of power.

    I would love to hear Janet and Mr Ackerly speak to this. I think it’s a really important part of the conversation, so this message isn’t considered just one for parents who already have certain privilege.

    1. I personally don’t believe that trusting children and “gaining skills” are mutually exclusive. Rick speaks to multiple intelligences, adults seeing and teaching the individual child, and empowering children by helping them to take personal responsibility for their actions. Certainly marginalized students benefit as much as (or even more than) privileged children through being taught by teachers who prioritize relationships, believe their students to be brilliant learners, who trust them to succeed in their own time, who recognize what they can do and are doing (as opposed to coming from a viewpoint of shoring up deficits) . All children deserve teachers who respect them and provide the enriched environment and experiences that speak to their strengths and preferences without pushing them to read before they have developed the readiness for the experience.

  2. Clare Thornton says:

    Thanks for sharing this conversation, it resonates with me a lot. My six year old son has recently been diagnosed with dyspraxia, which affects his ability to thrive in school – though for now he is thriving at home and in the creative and social aspects of life.

    He was also recently screened for dyslexia and a number of red flags have appeared from this screening.
    I agree with respecting the child’s readiness to learn to read and accepting that he will eventually learn to read in his own time. However, there are interventions available in school and at home to help support him get there, before he really experiences a sense of failure by comparison to his peers. Would you advise parents to shy away from the “interventionist” approaches , and instead trust in him that he will get there anyway when he is ready? My concern would be the damage that could be done to a child’s self esteem as the gap between him and his peers widens without any type of interventions of support. Is “early intervention” not a worthwhile pursuit?

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