|This "smart" kid was so used to school|
being "easy" that it took her 35 years
to love the discipline of learning math.
(But at least she got her teeth fixed.)
Clearly, there are times when a child is asked to do work that is inappropriate to his ability, or for which he has not had a proper foundation laid. Sometimes there are learning disabilities involved. These issues have all been addressed in previous posts. My topic today concerns the child who is capable, but is handicapped by his own fears or weak study habits. This is the immature learner-- the typical child-- who needs loving adults to push him to reach his potential.
Sometimes "I hate math" (or whatever) means something else. Sometimes it means, "I hate the way it makes me feel that I'm not smart anymore."
It doesn't take long, once children start school, for them to size each other up and start comparing themselves. They all know early on which of their classmates are good at the things the teachers want them to do; these are the "smart" ones. Without even thinking about it, children begin to base their identity on being the "smart kid," or the funny one or the fastest runner or even the meanest kid in class. It is a comfortable feeling to know where you stand and who you are. But this early self-pigeonholing can cause problems.
When I began teaching, my assignment was middle school Spanish. It was there that I noticed a phenomenon common to those "smart kids." I called it crash and burn: many kids who had sailed through elementary school, learning to read and write with ease, were completely undone when they had to learn the vocabulary and grammar of a foreign language. Meanwhile, some students who had struggled in earlier grades did well in my class. I saw it happen again when I was teaching middle school math. Why? Did the "A" kids lose brain cells? Did the "C" kids catch up? Was I just bad at teaching smart kids?
I thought about it, and realized I had done the same thing myself when I was in school. I had sailed through the early grades thinking I was pretty bright, until I started floundering in my high school Algebra 2 class. Crashed and burned.
So I developed a theory based on my experience and observations: the students who had previously struggled were not taken by surprise when Spanish-- something that was new to them-- took some effort to learn, because they were already accustomed to spending time to memorize and practice new things. The "smart" kids, on the other hand, had assumed "school is easy for me because I am smart." But now they were unable to simply soak up a new language the same way that they had earlier, almost intuitively, picked up reading and arithmetic. In short, when they began to struggle, they were shaken to the core, terrified that they were no longer "smart."
In my generation, schools began to try to prevent this phenomenon by providing "gifted and talented" programs for selected students. The idea was, challenge them on their own level and they would go far. The problem was, we weren't really challenged in those programs. We did some enrichment activities-- learned songs in French, touched a brain and lung, studied the metric system(!), played on the only computer the school had, learned calligraphy, had discussions on "values clarification"-- but it was all very, very easy and fun stuff. The dangerous idea that being "smart" means school is easy was simply reinforced.
And so the crash and burn phenomenon can happen when a student hits higher level math, or begins to play a musical instrument, or anything that doesn't come easily. And different students hit this wall at different times, and in different subjects. But to preserve their "smart" identity, some children may place the blame on the difficult subject. Then they can go on their merry way, avoiding whatever scared them (as I did with math for 35 years) and may be effectively closing doors of opportunity in their future.
Unfortunately, parents and even teachers can reinforce a child's negative attitude toward a tough subject without even knowing it. It's one thing to sympathize with a child's frustration, and give them encouragement, but well-meaning adults may make things worse with comments like, "math is hard!" "I was never very good at spelling, either." "You'll never use this in the real world, I don't know why they make you learn it." "Some people are just not good at science."
(Now before you go all "The Animal School" on me, I understand that we all have our gifts. I am not talking about expecting a turtle to fly, or forcing a child who dreams of being an artist to get an advanced math degree. But as Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) insists, the percentage of people who could be literate in both math and language is far closer to 100% than our current educational system produces.)
The good news is, once these kids can get past the wall, they often excel. Learning that struggling is a positive experience is one of the keys to success-- not just in school, but in life. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" is the reason my husband, who has fought dyslexia since he was a child, ended up with a PhD. He got up and over his wall early. My wall came later, and it has taken much longer to get over it.
Sometimes "I hate ____" means I hate having to put out an effort to learn something.
As adults, I believe we can and should push our children to truly learn to learn-- not just to do what comes easily to them. Will they need Trigonometry in their job as a store manager? Will reading Shakespeare prepare them to be a pharmacist? Maybe not, but the experience of tackling something difficult, and persisting until they understand it, will build a resilience, work ethic, and confidence in themselves that will serve them throughout their lives.
So when your child says she "hates (insert subject here)," it could be that she is truly not ready for the subject-- or it could be that she simply hasn't developed her learning muscles, and the possibility of failure scares her. That's when she may need a push. To determine the difference, consider these PUSH areas:
Persistence: Is she giving up as soon as something gets difficult? Do the tears start the minute she sees "Write an essay..."? Does she melt down when she doesn't understand a math concept the first time? Or does she genuinely try to do the work, looking for and correcting her own mistakes, re-working problems, asking for help when she really needs it? A student who consistently and genuinely tries, but doesn't succeed, may not be ready for the topic at hand.
Unfamiliarity: Does he respond to new material positively, and seem proud when he masters it? Or does he feel threatened by new concepts, afraid that they will "prove" he's not "smart" enough to understand them? Sometimes a child will put up a fuss whenever he comes up against a new skill or concept, but calms down after the new wears off and he realizes he can do it after all. That's a red flag that it's not the topic, but the child's fears, that stand in the way of his learning.
Self-talk: Is she more likely to say, "This is stupid! I can't do this!" or, "This is tough! But I'll get it." The child who verbally abuses herself or disparages the work itself is caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Henry Ford said, "If you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." The Little Engine That Could had the right self-talk.
Habit: Does your child often take short-cuts, and find ways of avoiding work? Is procrastination a recurring problem? Does he do the minimum necessary to get by, careless with his spelling and writing mechanics? Or does he follow directions, read explanations, and show all the steps in his math work? Looking back on my math experience, I remember many days when my homework wasn't done. Hmmm. Correlation?
So how does a parent effectively PUSH a child who really needs it? Try these ideas:
- For long assignments that seem overwhelming, help your child break a task into smaller chunks. Use a calendar to schedule each stage of a long-term assignments, or a time chart for daily homework and breaks.
- Does your child feel overwhelmed at the prospect of doing twenty math problems? Use a timer to see how many you can get done in fifteen minutes. Then have him do a chore, or work on another assignment, or practice his music for ten minutes, and then come back and do more math. Repeat until done.
- Choose a quick physical reward for each segment completed (hug, high five, happy dance).
- Help your child identify resources that he can use when he gets stuck. Are there notes from class? Explanations in a textbook? Information on the teacher's blog? Many, many topics are explained in videos on You tube, or educational websites like Khan Academy.
- Remind your child of past successes that took practice and persistence. Riding a bike, roller skating, swimming, reading-- even if you have to go back as far as his infancy to tell him how he never gave up but kept trying to walk even after he fell down over and over, let him see that he HAS been and can BE successful because of persistence, not because he's "smart."
- Find an activity your child is motivated to excel in that will require persistence. Earning Scout badges and rank advancements, martial arts, playing the violin all require practice and effort. Once a child discovers that hard work pays off in one area, it will be easier to transfer that persistence to another. (Although the transfer is not necessarily immediate.)
- Read or watch movies about famous people who overcame obstacles through persistence.
- For difficult new material, help child think through what he already knows about a topic. If he's learning to add decimal numbers, he probably already knows how to add multi-digit numbers, and he may also know how to use decimals to write dollar amounts. Help him figure out what he doesn't know about the new topic, and put it into words. How is adding decimals different? How do I know where to put the decimal in the answer?
- Remind your child that everything is new for everybody the first time they do it. Discuss how new can sometimes feel scary because of the "unknown." Share stories of doing something new and being scared at first, and how the feeling went away.
- Have her teach you to do something that she knows how to do but you don't. Display a good attitude about your own mistakes.
- Have her make a list of things she has never done before but wants to try-- riding a horse, baking a cheesecake, building a rocket. Then let her do some of the age-appropriate ones, and discuss how things get easier the more you do them.
- Teach her the concept of the "learning curve" and have her predict how steep the curve will be for each new concept or skill she learns.
1. Model positive self-talk! If you catch yourself saying anything like, "I'm so stupid," correct yourself. Better: "Wow-- I need more practice with that! I haven't figured this out yet. I'll be so proud when I get this done! Whoops-- I made a mistake here. I might need help with this."
2. Avoid praising your child for being "smart" or "good at ___." Instead, compliment him on his hard work and persistence: "Your hard work paid off! Your effort really shows. I'm impressed with your work! I'm proud of you for sticking with it all the way!" (This is sometimes a hard one to remember. I still struggle with not saying "the s word.")
3. Respond to the feeling, not the statement. Adults who constantly respond to a child's, "I'm stupid!" with, "Oh, sweetie, you're my little genius!" may actually reinforce a child's negative self-talk. The child may feel encouraged to keep saying negative things in order to hear the compliments, or will simply stop listening to the apparently baseless praise. Instead, let them know you are listening by reflecting their feelings: "You sound frustrated," or "I hate it when I feel that way." Later, find something specific and positive to sincerely praise about the child's efforts.
Habit: You may need to choose your battles, especially if he is consistently careless, but as often as possible:
1. Praise careful work, excellence and attention to detail. Don't look for perfection (careless people may be hidden perfectionists who don't try, because their results can never be as good as they want them to be), but make a point to recognize extra effort, and do so specifically: not, "That paragraph is great!" but, "You described the dinosaur five different ways! Nice job!"
2. Require completion of tasks, on time. Little things like putting their dirty clothes in a hamper instead of on the floor for mom to find, and putting the pieces of a board game back in a box after playing with it, are ways of being courteous to others. Even small children can do these things. The same applies to completion of homework. If your child has an assignment list, you may need to help him go over it each night to be sure his homework is truly done.
3. Emphasize following directions. If you ask your child to put his clothes away, and he throws them on his bed, he has not followed directions. Likewise, if a worksheet says "Answer in complete sentences," and he gives 1-2 word answers instead, he has not done the assignment.
4. Reject lazy work. If the student knows how to use capital letters and periods correctly and still writes sentences without them, make him go back and correct his work. If he is randomly putting answers down on his math paper, or not bothering to show his work, he needs to redo it correctly.
Watching our children struggle can be heart-wrenching. But we also know that allowing them-- or worse, enabling them-- to give up, simply to make their present life easier, is never in their best interest. When we can help our children learn persistence and develop resilience, we are teaching them critical skills they will need to find their own brand of success in their adult lives. And that's a job we can be proud of.