Is your child struggling in school, even failing? Most things you read tell you how to help your child set goals, do more homework, work with the teacher, set rewards, take away privileges, get tutoring, organize her life, go to summer school, and so on.
You’ve probably already tried most of these things, and some helped. But for many children, these approaches help only in the short run, and if your child continues to experience failure, other problems become evident. Perhaps now you’re noticing a resistance to school and maybe even a sullen, angry attitude toward school. Often, this leads to behavior issues in school and even at home. By this point your child believes other kids are smarter than he is, and he may even believe that he’s “stupid.”
Let’s back up and talk about how children learn. Children are born to learn. That’s what their developing brains are all about. They’re born curious and interested in the world around them.
Observe children at play? The first thing you notice is they’re actively involved in their current project; looking, touching, moving, maybe tasting and exclaiming about their new discovery. It’s often hard to draw them away from their learning. They’re not working for grades, approval, or any external rewards. They’re working at learning! Learning IS their reward. They can’t get away from it; they can’t stop it; learning is what they’re born to do.
Notice another thing too – when they try something that doesn’t work – like building a bridge that collapses when they put their trucks on it, or solving a problem on their X box game – they look for a solution or they ask for help. Sometimes they walk away, but you’ll notice they come back and try again. They continue learning even when something they’re doing fails. Very seldom do they give up, and when they do, it’s usually because they don’t yet have the necessary skills and knowledge needed to solve the problem. This statement needs to be repeated. “Giving up tells us they don’t yet have the necessary skills and knowledge needed to learn the process or to solve the problem.”
When a child or adolescent fails at solving a problem, creating a product, understanding a process, successfully completing a task – the next step is to find out what caused the failure. In other words, what are the missing skills and knowledge? To find out, we need to do two important things.
First we ask our child a question; if it’s a problem she’s trying to solve, we ask, “What have you done so far?” or if it’s an answer she isn’t sure about, we ask, “How did you decide on that answer?” And secondly we need to stop talking and LISTEN. When we take the time to ask and then listen, we learn if our child has misunderstandings, or needs more information, or if she has skipped steps, etc. and then we know what to say or how to direct her in such a way that we promote her confidence in herself as a learner. Sometimes we get a beautiful surprise.
This was the case when one of the authors of this blog asked her Kindergarten son about his answers on a paper. Stephen had brought home a paper that had columns with pictures of everyday items. He had marked the box beside each one with the letter that gave the beginning sound of the pictured item. Some of them had been marked wrong with a big X. One was particularly bothersome in that her son, being in a family of hunters, had written a “W” for “rifle.” Instead of trying to tell him what he should have done, she asked him how he decided on a W. He responded, “Mom, don’t you know that’s a Winchester Rifle!”
The message is clear. When we listen to a child’s thinking process, we learn about the child’s knowledge and skills. We learn what they know and what they need to know. Then we can help them learn the knowledge and skills they need.
When we do this, we are modeling two most important learning facts for them; #1, that getting the right answer is the result of knowing and following a process that requires knowledge and skills, and #2, that their mistakes are valuable information that can be used to direct them toward right answers.
Of course if you have adolescents who’ve been failing for years, it takes some patience and time to help them see that learning is a process. You’ll probably get the following response when you start asking your child how she got her answer, “We don’t have to know that. We just have to get the right answers.”
What do failing students lack? It’s not intelligence. It’s not talent. It’s not ability. They lack skills and knowledge. And if this has gone on over time, they’ve probably learned to use some unacceptable behavior as a protection from imaginary scenarios where they would look “stupid.” It is much more socially acceptable to look lazy, shy, forgetful, aggressive, or comedic than it is to look stupid.
When fundamental learning skills are lacking or weak, kids can’t improve merely by spending more time studying. A different approach is needed. When parents listen to their child’s thinking, and then appropriately lead the child to what is needed, the children are building their fundamental learning skills while they are becoming successful learners in any subject area.
Copyright 2009 Dr. Judy Harmon Holmes and Marian Burns, M.Ed. Special Education and Classroom Management