Breaking Down the Barriers

When children struggle repeatedly without success, their natural reaction is to avoid that challenge in the future. And, so, kids “hate” math, or reading, or spelling, or. . . the list goes on. Is it possible for a teacher to tear down that wall of resistance, or must she simply become a drill sergeant demanding that assignments be completed? Happily, patience, encouragement, and a few simple one-on-one teaching techniques can turn a frustrated student into a willing learner.

First, take a temporary break from the specific task that has proved too difficult. Use that time for enjoyable activities within the same subject area that will not cause the student stress. By giving him a chance to associate pleasant experiences with the subject area in general, he will begin to relax his defenses.

For example, if long division has him baffled, avoid division and plan fun hands-on experiences with money (playing store) or measurement. If reading has been a struggle, stop daily formal instruction for a short period. Increase the time spent reading aloud to the child and use simple games that remind him of all he does know to reinforce phonic skills already taught. Gradually reintroduce stories that are especially easy for him to read—past readers or library books—providing him simple practice that will improve his fluency and speed while leaving him with a sense of accomplishment.

Next, return to the area of struggle, but using different materials so that the sight of something associated with frustration doesn’t trigger his resistance. Use a multi-sensory approach, choosing resources that allow him to see, hear, and do. Sometimes this is all it takes. One of the families I worked with had a six-year-old daughter who had been regularly protesting math worksheets. They decided to try a math software program as a supplement. One evening they put her to bed before entertaining guests. Once the guests left they could hear the clatter of the computer keyboard. She had sneaked out of bed to practice addition drills!

If resources suit the child but frustration remains, begin with a brief review of easier skills or concepts. If that reveals a gap responsible for the difficulty, it can be addressed immediately. Otherwise, this serves as a calming reintroduction. Next, break down the original task into specific, small skills. This prevents the child from feeling overwhelmed and serves as a model for him to eventually use on his own for any challenge. The amount of time spent on each of these areas will vary greatly. It could be minutes, days, or even weeks. Practice patience so that the child never feels rushed through these lessons. If he works beyond the “Uhm, I think I get it” through to “Oh, yeah, this is easy” stage, his retention will be greater and his confidence more lasting.

Sometimes the original task will remain too difficult, requiring the teacher to alter her goals. In that case, ask what practical need the child will have in the future and work toward that objective. Higher math may be eliminated in favor of life skills. A calculator may be used for speed in computation in order to focus on developing skill solving word problems since that is how computation will be used. Listening to books on tape or watching movies may substitute for literature normally read in order to focus on comprehension skills. Working on well-written notes and legible phone messages may replace essays, and so on.

Balance work in weak areas with opportunities for growth in areas of interest or ability. If the child seems disinterested in everything, look for opportunities to expand his experiences and give him a taste of a variety of subjects so that something may spark an interest. Plan field trips, short-term enrollment in such classes as art, music, sports, or those offered by museums involving nature studies or other areas of science, and/or volunteer opportunities.

Learning should be something enjoyed—even the challenges. It is the teacher’s task to adjust the situation in order to help students grow. If instead they are left with a sense of discouragement and failure, the resulting lack in self confidence and skill may limit their future. Therefore, how we teach can be as significant as what we teach. Let’s take time to be patient.