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From Avoidance to Confidence

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: July 2004
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Is there something your student finds too hard? If so, he probably tries to avoid that task. When a student feels like a failure, he needs to experience success, not criticism. Come to his rescue with a method that will not only build his confidence, but also serve as a model for him to use when facing future challenges. Here are a few strategies for any task that has become too confusing:

  1. Separate the task into small, manageable pieces. Begin with something you know the student understands and move forward with baby steps. By backing up to a place of actual understanding, the student has a chance to remember he isn’t a failure. It allows him to relax enough to begin the next small step.
  2. For example, when my son practiced a music lesson I would target a musical phrase (not the whole piece) and have him focus on one skill at a time. First he would practice until he could play the correct notes. Then he worked on tempo. Once he had succeeded there, he moved on to adjustments in the volume for musical expression. This sort of practice prevented the typical procedure of playing through an entire piece beginning to end over and over and over with little change. The small steps gave him a continued sense of achievement and of satisfaction as he heard his own progress.

    When working with a student on a composition, I break down the steps so that he can focus on just one task. If I think that the sentences in a paragraph should be rearranged, I might read aloud different possibilities, asking which he thinks flows better. For the more visual or kinesthetic learner, I might write the sentences on strips of paper for him to physically rearrange, or have him use different colored highlighters, one color per sentence, with a key for the order.

    Once sentence order has been adjusted, I might target a vague sentence, copying it with blanks in places where I want him to add an adjective or adverb. I’ll ask the student to either suggest descriptive words or choose from several I suggest. Then I reinforce his choices by noting that when I read the sentence now, I have a much more specific mental picture than before. This step-by-step procedure ensures plenty of small successes, preventing rewriting from becoming an overwhelming task.

    Frequently, this strategy is enough to solve the problem. Certainly, it is a model we want to instill. However, if the student remains confused, try some of the following suggestions:

  3. Use a different approach. Even if you have been using a multi-sensory method, try changing the explanation, illustration, and general approach. Be sure to explain any words that may have caused confusion. For instance, he may be struggling with a word problem in math because he’s not sure what is being asked. A simple reminder, “The problem asks for the sum—that’s the answer when you add,” may be all that’s necessary to move ahead.
  4. If you’ve been using drawings along with explanations, try objects instead. For instance, if a diagram of a cylinder leaves him confused, show him a can.

    Whenever possible, have the student do something as you direct him. For example, even though I’m a visual learner, it is easier for me to learn a new computer program by having someone tell me what to do while I manipulate the mouse and keyboard. In directing me, the tutor must give me small steps, focusing my attention on one thing at a time. This, of course, allows me small successes until I finally understand how to use the program on my own. The point is to find a way to communicate clearly, remembering that participation and simple directions can often penetrate a wall of frustration.

  5. Saturate the student with practice. Sometimes a student just hasn’t had enough time to “get it.” He may understand what to do, but just needs more opportunities to practice. Often this is the case with math. Because each child learns at his own pace, no workbooks or programs will be a perfect fit. He may pick up addition, but become confused by division. Perhaps measurement will be a breeze, but fractions leave him feeling lost. Whatever the area of struggle, he needs practice problems until he reaches the point where he feels confident.

  6. If the above strategies aren’t working, the problem could be a matter of timing. The student might not be developmentally ready for the particular objective he’s expected to meet. In that case, it’s just a matter of reintroducing the task at some later date.
  7. My son could readily solve math problems mentally at a young age. He could estimate the answer in a long division problem, but met continual frustration when trying to follow the written process (the algorithm). I followed all the strategies mentioned to no avail, and decided to set it aside. We moved on to other areas of math—money, measurement, and time. Several months later, I reintroduced long division. It still baffled him. The following fall he started working problems on his own and wondered why he’d ever been confused. Obviously, timing was the key.

  8. If timing isn’t the problem, consider other factors that may be interfering. If the child has passed the age of readiness in the area of struggle, check for physical causes of interference: hearing, vision (including the possible need for vision therapy), allergies, and fine or gross motor weakness in muscles or motor planning. The remedy might be simple (glasses, removing wax from the ears, eliminating a food from the diet) or an ongoing treatment (vision, occupational, or speech therapy).

If difficulties remain, I suggest testing to determine whether or not there is a learning disability. I realize that many parents fear labels, but an accurate diagnosis must be made in order to find the most effective intervention. Because a child with a learning disability performs capably in many areas, adults often assume any lack of performance to be out of stubbornness or laziness. Therefore, they react with accusations, “You just have to try harder,” or assign consequences they think will motivate, “No computer games until it’s finished,” only to find that instead of rising to the occasion the child has become depressed or rebellious. When the underlying cause is biological, the child can’t live up to his parents expectations simply by wanting to please. He may try and, because he doesn’t realize why he fails, decide he must be stupid. This struggling victim of a biological disorder now sees himself as worthless. Is fear of a label more important than helping that child?

If you want to find out more about learning disabilities, www.LDonline.org not only offers a broad definition, but also describes various types of disabilities. A quick check in the phone book under educational consultant or psychologist should provide you with a list of professionals that can test the student. In some cases, an audiologist, neurologist, speech therapist, or occupational therapist may be able to make the diagnosis. (Central Auditory Processing Disorder, for example, requires testing by an audiologist.) Generally, though, the student will be given an IQ test in order to determine the proper level of expectation. That is, an IQ in the normal range suggests that developmentally we can expect the child to perform in all areas like other children of his age. Then a variety of other tests are given. The results of those tests are compared to the age established by the IQ. A test score more than a year below that age level suggests the strong possibility of interference—a learning disability.

Once diagnosed, there are resources, programs, and support groups that can provide help. The area of weakness will usually require one-on-one, step-by-baby-step instructions and a multi-sensory approach—the strategies discussed here. However, now that the parent or teacher has greater insight and more appropriate materials, patience can (and should) replace annoyance.

We all want to learn quickly and easily. When that’s not the case, we will break down a challenge in order to finally conquer it only if we’ve been shown how to do that and have finally experienced success. Let’s give our children the confidence to follow the adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” by showing them how to do just that.

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