Overcoming the Most Common Mistake Educators Make Leading Generation Z

By: Tim Elmore

In 2010, Christopher Havens was sure he’d hit rock bottom. That year, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder. Soon after, a fight earned Havens time in a solitary confinement cell at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. When he arrived at the facility, he assumed that fitting in was his best chance at survival. While all alone, it dawned on him that fitting in was not the answer. He had no one to fit in with but himself. And that was his epiphany. Instead, his solution was standing out.

Chris began working on math problems that no one else has solved. He had lots of time.

Ironically, Chris Havens is a high school dropout. Not the kind of guy you’d think would invest lots of time on academics. But he has a good mind and is intrigued by tough problems. Since Havens has limited computer access, he does almost all of his work by hand. Theorems often stretch on for pages as he looks for patterns that could lead toward a solution. He eventually sent some of those pages to the University of Turin in Italy, showing his solution to a previously unsolved problem. They loved it. In January 2020, his work was published in the academic journal Research in Number Theory.

Christopher Havens’ story is crazy—but true. As a young guy, he wondered since his crime had made the world worse, maybe he could improve the world (and the inmates he lived with) by solving tough problems and teaching others to do so as well. He now hosts “Pi Day” each year where inmates get together to work on difficult math equations and solve them.

A Picture of Progress or Regress

Chris Havens’ story illustrates a solution to the most common mistake we make working with Generation Z. Our problem is—we see students’ high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, and assume we just need to make their day easier. After all, they’re stressed out.

  • Parents will often finish their kids’ homework assignments.
  • Teachers will often lighten their load thinking the subject is too hard.
  • Coaches will often excuse bad behavior assuming they’re under pressure.
  • Employers will often relieve their stressed young staff of responsibilities at work.

In short, we react. We assume the best answer is to remove the stressors. To make life easier.

In some cases, that may be the answer. But too often, it backfires.

It creates the mindset that the answer in life is to reduce the problem not rise to the occasion. We aren’t teaching students about stress management; we are teaching them about stress avoidance.

Chris Havens didn’t need less pressure. He actually needed a challenge that captured his imagination. He needed a high-stakes problem to solve. He didn’t need a parent, a warden, a prison guard, or a teacher to do it for him. Just a little encouragement and belief that he could do it himself. And that’s what he got from the prison. One of his teachers, Mr. G, would walk by his cell and slip an envelope under the door. What was in it? Tough math problems that needed solving. Week after week Chris would solve them. Mr. G eventually slipped him a note: “Mr. Havens. You have surpassed all my abilities to teach you. Good luck!”

That sparked his vision for Pi Day, where Chris Havens multiplies his passion for problem-solving.

Well-Intentioned But Wrong Assumptions

When we assume young people need us to remove their hardship, we actually make life harder:

  1. It sends the wrong message. “You are unable to do this yourself. You need help”.
  2. It leaves them unready for life as an adult. “You will continue to lack autonomy.”
  3. It entrenches the wrong assumptions. “You are inadequate and must be guarded.”

Consider the assumption that a stressed-out kid needs us to remove the stressors and compare it to a fitness center. If you’re working out in a gym attempting to grow stronger, you know you’ll need to slowly but surely lift heavier weights. No pain, no gain. What you don’t need is some well-intentioned trainer to approach you and say: “Well, bless your heart! You are sweating up a storm and having a hard day trying to bench press all that weight. Here, let me take some of those barbells off and make it lighter for you.” Instead, you need a game plan from them, a spotter, and plenty of encouragement and belief.

A Game Plan

If you’re leading or teaching Generation Z students, may I offer some action steps to build the right mindset in them when it comes to stress and pressure:

1. Help them break down their projects into bite-sized chunks.

Just like cutting up food into smaller bites for a toddler, teens often need us to help cut up their project into bites that are digestible. This makes a big task seem doable. To keep from getting overwhelmed, we should suggest incremental change, not fundamental change.

2. Encourage them to practice psychological distancing.

Most young adults know the right thing to do and offer that advice to others. Psychological distancing is the practice of looking in the mirror and giving that same advice to yourself. It’s a practice that gives them perspective. Often, ignorance is not the problem, but rather follow through on what they know to do.

3. Help them set a goal and hold them accountable.

We all perform better when we are watched and affirmed. Accountability simply removes the option of giving up. Why? Others are involved and observing. Most wins require an outside set of eyes, ears, and words of support. They work like guardrails on a curvy road.

4. Communicate both high expectations and high belief.

Psychological research shows that students need a leader with high expectations of them (demanding), but also who expresses personal belief (support) that they can succeed. One is for the head pushing them to a high standard; the other is for the heart, lifting them higher.

5. Tell stories of other kids who struggle with stressors and overcame them.

Often, a personal vision is birthed from hearing stories of peers who overcame tough spots and succeeded. The book, Cradles of Eminence, studies the childhoods of 700 famous men and women. Over 90 percent of them overcame hardship. It’s a pattern in success stories.

6. Offer them challenges that are very important and almost impossible. 

With a little belief, young people naturally want to participate in projects that are very important and almost impossible. In fact, when we fail to challenge them with high stakes issues, they’ll settle for artificial ones that can be unhealthy or even violent.

If Hollywood produced a script of Chris Havens’ story, we would all feel it was pretty farfetched. It could never happen in real life. But it did. I believe it’s safe to say that while Chris Havens is still behind bars, he has already been set free by his change of mindset. Instead of blaming society for his ills, he’s using the gifts inside him to solve problems and serve people.

During the remaining years of his prison sentence, Haven plans to go on to study other mathematical subjects. He feels that doing math is a way for him to pay his “debt to society,” says Marta Cerruti, who has had several conversations with him. His story is one for the record books, the history books, and most of all, the math books.

May we use it in our work with Gen Z.

Overcoming the Most Common Mistake Educators Make Leading Generation Z