Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

Don Siegel

After so many years of debating the virtues of such things as charter schools, vouchers, Race to the Top, teacher assessments, no child left behind, and now, the common core, little attention has focused on how kids see things, and what gets their fires lit to learn. No initiative, no matter how logical it may seem or how much political and financial support it gets, is going to promote real growth in our youth unless youth are on-board, ready, and willing to engage with curricular content and the people responsible for delivering it.     

As a case in point, the story of a child struggling in an afterschool program provides a window into this critical aspect of a child’s life. Clarissa came from a difficult home situation, and lived in a neighborhood in which gangs, violence, and drugs were rife, and in which unemployment and poverty were the norm. She struggled with school, had not thought much about her future, and was on track to become another teen mother who would likely continue in this cycle of hopelessness. By chance, she connected with an afterschool program that engaged kids in a sport, while promoting a better life through academic enrichment, travel, and building social capital. When Clarissa first started the program she conveys that she had a “bad attitude”. She talked back to staff, fought with peers, gave only a half hearted effort during sport sessions, and blew-off the academic component of the program. Essentially, she was a kid “on the bubble” who was not really engaged or taking advantage of what the program had to offer. She was also the kid who staff dreaded, and who was on the verge of being constantly suspended because of her bad attitude and the negative effect she was having on others in the program.

Yet, after several years, Clarissa had an awakening in which she realized that her negative attitude was not really getting her what she wanted from life.  She conveys that she started to realize that listening to staff, participating more positively, and following directions got her more satisfaction than talking back and being nasty to everyone. What changed for Clarissa?

Clearly, it took Clarissa a great deal of time to understand that the people who she saw everyday really wanted to help her, and lookout for her wellbeing; something that she had not experienced with other peer and adult relationships she had experienced over the years. Clarissa conveyed that her bad attitude came from “never feeling like anyone was there for me and not caring about what I wanted and needed, so, after a while I didn’t care about others.” She further observes that once she really felt valued, having a positive outlook came easily. Overall, she felt happier, which in turn, became a source for her to move forward despite other challenges that she faced.

Over the years, Project Coach staff have observed many variations of Clarissa’s awakening. It is not unusual for us to work with youth who for a very long time, sometimes several years, have poor attitudes and are fairly non-responsive and unwilling to participate fully in our activities. But, then all of a sudden something clicks, and like Clarissa, they start on another, more positive, trajectory. This is one of the ironies and frustrations of doing youth development work. It is very non-linear in that there may be little overt change from day to day with a kid, but then one day, like “Leo the Late Bloomer”, a switch seems to flip, and they begin to blossom. For want of a better label, we might call this the “Clarissa Effect”.

While no one really knows how or why such transformations take place, I  believe that they have to do what is going on in a youth’s emotional life. A recent book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has something to say about the “Clarissa Effect”. Kahneman proposes that we really have two selves driving our behavior. The first he calls Self 1, which is instinctive, automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and frequent. The second is Self 2, which is what we typically think of when we describe who we are. It is slow, effortful, logical, and conscious.

Of particular interest in his framework is the notion that these two selves work independently as we experience the moment (Self 1), and as we recall the aggregate of moments experienced (Self 2). In essence, Kahneman believes that our conscious self remembers overall experiences more by their peaks and valleys, and by the way an experience ends, than by the quality of ongoing experiences from start to finish. According to Kahneman, Self 2 is the remembering and conscious self, while Self 1, the experiencing self, that which lives in each moment of an experience, is a “stranger” to us.

While these dichotomies of self, as they relate to one’s identity and behavior, can get quite confusing, the take away from Kahneman’s work is that the “stranger self” (Self 1) needs to become less strange and more familiar to the  “conscious self” (Self 2). In essence, Self 2 needs to become more aware of the positive experiences associated with ongoing involvement in an activity; it’s positive affect, and the part that one’s behavior makes in shaping such experiences and feeling.

My take away from Kahneman is that for Self 2 to get to this point, the Clarissa’s of the world need to be immersed in activities that feel good and leave a dense trail of salient peaks with few valleys.  Ultimately, it is Self 2 that is transformed by day in and day out exposure to positive experiences; the snippets of which are compiled and assembled into pictures that the more conscious, deliberate, and conscious mind can understand. This takes time, especially for youth who’s Self 2 has already been defined by negative experiences that have shaped their negative identities. Consequently, the “Clarissa Effect” entails bringing Self 2 into better alignment with Self 1, a process of cohering one’s conscious and less conscious worlds.

The bottom line here is that over time we will encounter many Clarissa’s, and if we wish to get them on-board with our programs, and in so doing, a brighter future for themselves, we need to help them feel good about themselves, and understand how their own behavior promote such feelings. There is no formula for doing this. But what seems to work is sticking with these kids and exposing them to a continuous stream of interesting activities and supportive people. Some may respond quickly, while others may be multiyear projects. But, if they keep coming back, they are finding some satisfaction in being with us. As the aggregate of peaks build so will the likelihood that they change course, and move in a more productive direction.  


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

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