Could Batman and Bottled Lightning Help Your Struggling Reader?

In a world that demands instant gratification, it can be a real challenge to teach kids the kind of perseverance that will allow them to keep problem solving, keep analyzing, keep moving forward, and keep believing in themselves and their abilities even when the going gets tough. The word perseverance itself hints at a story, a growth arc. A related word, persistence, is when people keep trying something—even if it doesn’t appear to be working—without changing their approach to it. Another related word, tenacity, is when people keep trying something, but when it doesn’t work, they try different approaches. Perseverance is a combination of the two with the added dimension of allowing people to continue their efforts without regard to discouragement, previous failure, or opposition. There’s an element of real passion in perseverance, and passion is always related to emotion and belief. More on this in a bit.

I recently read a study that made me wonder if helping a child develop a more robust self-concept (self-concept is the answer to the question Who am I as a person?) could help build perseverance, especially when it comes to dyslexic or struggling readers. Dyslexic kids don’t have to spend very many days in school to notice that there’s something very different about how their brain works. When they reach this realization, it’s alarming and deeply unsettling, even frightening for them. The longer a dyslexic child goes without diagnosis or accommodations, the greater the difficulty that child has when it comes to developing or maintaining a healthy self-concept. Helping a child build a mindset focused on perseverance under those conditions is difficult but not impossible. And while the study we’ll consider was not done on dyslexic children, and has nothing to do with dyslexia per se, the data seems to be applicable to any child facing a daunting task.

The 2017 study from the University of Minnesota is entitled, “The Batman Effect: Improving Perseverance in Young Children.” The study’s focused on something called self-distancing and its impact on perseverance. Self-distancing is the term for taking an outsider’s view of one’s situation. The researchers conducting the study tested 180 four- and six-year-olds by putting a toy in a locked glass box and offering the kids a set of keys. But here’s the thing: none of the keys worked. The researchers wanted to see how long the kids would keep trying to open the box and how creatively they would do so. The researchers offered the kids strategies. They could take a break whenever they wanted and play a very enticing video game, or they could pretend they were either Dora the Explorer or Batman. They even offered the children capes to help with the illusion. The findings? The kids who pretended to be Batman or Dora worked the longest and demonstrated the lowest levels of frustration. They were calmer. One four-year-old said, “Batman never gets frustrated.” The kids who met the challenge as themselves were less creative, got impatient and flustered, and gave up quickly in order to play video games.

What does this demonstrate? That identity and self-concept—the way children see themselves—is a powerful tool that can be used when encountering obstacles.

Richard Wiseman, author of The As If Principle, delves deeply into similar research done on adult test subjects. His conclusion? “The notion of behavior causing emotion suggests that people should be able to create any feeling they desire by simply acting as if they are experiencing that emotion. Or as William James famously put it, ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ I refer to this simple but powerful proposition as the As If principle.” William James referred to the power of that idea as “bottled lightning” and used this technique throughout his life as an energizing force.

It’s an interesting conundrum that emotion cuts both ways; when one encounters obstacles, one can feel negative emotion like frustration, impatience, despair, or discouragement. Often, that may be the first type of response one notices in themselves, especially if they have dyslexia or another processing issue. But people always have a choice, and when they notice they are reacting with a negative response or expectation they can choose to reach instead for that bottled lightning. Positive emotion has a power all its own. The alter ego, the best part of the self, the part with the cape that never gets frustrated, is just a thought away. The character of Batman is motivated by passion, dedication, and the belief that he can and must make a difference—these emotions are what fuel his perseverance. When your child encounters troubles with his or her reading difficulty, what if you ask, “What would Batman do?” Then see what happens when the cape comes out.

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For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Don M. Winn Amazon author page for more information.