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How to Train a Dragon: Lessons from my Students

October 6, 2017



The children that I work with teach me so much life lessons in the smallest ways. At times I find myself reflecting on a session, and translating it to make sense in my adult world. During a vivacious game of dragons and bridges, with Johnny, his name was changed for confidentiality purposes, I was dubbed the heroic dragon trainer. This got me thinking: what are the essential elements needed to be an effective trainer? I quickly jotted some things down and narrowed my list to the following things: need to set clear goals, provide immediate feedback on weaknesses, and reinforce small improvements towards the final goal. My purpose today is to explain to you what each of these elements are, and why they are needed to train effectively.  


Define Your targets/Set Goals

Kid: What are we gona do Ms. Sabrina? Me: “I don’t know. You tell me. What do you want your dragon to do”. Kid: I want him to have wings, I want him to go fast, I want him to dive in the ocean like this! Me: whoa, whoa whoa I said. We need to start with one and it has to make sense.

See, what johnny was trying to do is exactly whats needed for training. The fist step is to create goals for what he wants. When training a person, you must first identify the goals. What will it take for this person to understand the expectations of this role? What do I want this person to be able to accomplish once I’ve finished with this training? The most important and often neglected part of setting goals is defining those goals in realistic and measurable terms. What do I mean? Avoid broad statements that you cannot measure. For example: a goal such as “ride a bike with efficiency” or “complete written reports with little errors”. Those goals do not say much in how you are to measure them for progress. A better way to write them would be “will reach 2 miles when riding a bike for 20 mins” or “the report will include 4 key elements” and “there will be less than 4 errors per report. These definitions will allow any two persons to look at the goal and measure it the same way.


Identify weakness and offer immediate feedback  

Kid: “I don’t think he’s ever going to learn to swim”. Me: why do you say that? Kid: I think his wings broke. I no fix it.  me: its ok, we’ll patch him right up with these bandages and teach him how swim.

Identifying the weakness is essential to making progress. What is preventing the learner from reaching that goal. One must also take data on the progress which helps to keep the trainer on the right path. In evaluating the goals, give immediate feedback so you are able to demonstrate once more how to implement the step. How many heard of sandwich method? You want to give positive feedback but want to avoid sandwiching as it undermines the point you are making. Transparent feedback with demonstration on how to improve is more effective.


Reinforce improvements on small tasks

 Kid: he did it, he did it! Me: what happened johnny? Kid: the dragon finally jumped in to swim. Its time to give him a cake and sing happy birthday. Me: laugh..u mean to celebrate? that’s true, he did get in but he’s not even across the other side of the water yet. Kid: I know but he was scared to go in with his broken wing but now he’s not! 

Small improvements can be hard to recognize, especially when theres a larger goal in place but its important to create smaller milestones in between the goals to encourage the learner. This is where the positive feedback will come in to balance out the constructive feedback you’ve given. The celebrations do not have to be as big as getting a cake for each one, but acknowledgement goes a long way.


As your fading out your prompts and lead in the training, encourage the learner to begin to answer their own questions. This will build their confidence, and exponentially speed up their learning curve. An effective training package is incomplete without clear and measureable goals, giving immediate feedback on weak areas, and reinforcing small improvements towards the final goal. If these elements are included, you are on your way to becoming a more effective trainer. Who knows, you may even be able to teach the class on “how to train a dragon”.



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