How to Help Your Children Become Strong, Successful Learners
My Son's Path To Reading:
Before discussing specific strategies for helping your kids through the learning process, I'd like to share our experience with our son.
This summer my son not only read but thoroughly LOVED his first full-length novel. Up until now he had excitedly begun a countless number of books only to lose interest when the storyline became too confusing, complicated or "boring." He would find some enjoyment in short, amusing picture books like "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" or "Captain Underpants" and comic books, magazines and non-fiction books like "The Guinness Book of Records" would engage him on occasion. Losing his self, however, in a story that went on for over 20 pages? – Was not happening.
I mention this not because there is anything so unique about a boy taking his time in discovering the world of books but because in a few weeks he will turn twelve and to be honest I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that he would just be one of those people who hates reading anything longer than a newspaper. What made it impossible to fully accept this fact however, was the knowledge that he wanted, really wanted, to read. Since he was little he would excitedly choose sophisticated and wonderful novels (Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, Tales of Narnia), eagerly beginning reading them or ask me to read his eyes glaze over with confusion, give up as he (and I) realized that the story was not clicking. Attempts to pick age-level or even below age level books met with frustration, ("They are for babies") or even bigger confidence whistle as he realized it was often difficult to follow even those choices. Neverheless, despite many moments of frustration, he persevered in his quest to one day enjoy reading.
During the early years we attributed it to age. Being an advocate of not pressuring kids to read I held back .: "Just wait and see, do not pressure – as he gets older it will come." He got older – it did not come – at least not when we had hoped it would. The mere mention of a book he was curious about would send me running to the bookstore in hopes that this "may be the one." Consequently he acquitted a nice collection of books which although enthusiastically started, were quickly discarded only to collect dust on his shelf. By third grade we knew something was amiss. Friends, even the ones who "did not like reading," were suddenly finding books with which they could connect. After that his strong social and physical abilities outside the classroom, school became a place of stress and since so much time and attention is given to school, he in turn was becoming a stressed little boy.
In our case, extremely switching schools was quite helpful. But in hindsight what was most effective was in addition to finding other opportunities for him to be successful (camp, finding the right sport), we never stopped sending the message, both verbally and non-verbally, that we continued to have faith that one day he would be the reader he hoped to be. While visiting him at camp we took a trip to a local New Hampshire bookstore. He selected yet another book that he thought "looked good." Reluctant to get it at first because it seemed a bit long, involved and "dark", I did what every parentoping and praying their child will read does – I bought it. When I received a letter a week later asking me to please send the second book in the series as he had finished the first, I thought he was joking. He was not
As any parent of a child with a learning difficulty knows, there are many levels involved in the process of coming to accept and then tackle this predicament. First we need to make that leap of acknowledging that yes there is a problem. This brings up its own range of emotions. Then it's the process of honing in on just what specifically is going on and how best to help. For my son, we discovered it had to do with the way his brain "processed" and remembered the information it was receiving. Words like decoding and encoding became familiar terms. Fortunately his teachers were supportive and helpful, both to him and to us. This is crucial. Parents need support, information, guidance and encouragement just as much as children. Finding professionals who were able to offer this to us was instrumental in helping us best help our son.
Whether or not your child has a learning disability or is struggling with certain subjects or styles of teaching, the most important thing as parent is to never give up hope, encouragement or confidence that sooner or later your child will reach his goals. School should be a place in which your child gathers strength -not stress. The key is to offer support however, NOT pressure. Support communicates that you believe in them – pressure communicates tension.
Ten points every parent should know:
There are ten critical points I believe every parent should know when it comes to their child's education but especially important for those parents of children for whatever learning presents an even greater challenge. They are as follows:
1. Know your child's learning style. Some children learn best visually, others from listening. Be aware of where your child succeeds and where they struggle; ask teachers. Identify there areas of competence. Every child possesses areas of strength and it is up to parents to promote them. Educator Howard Gardner revolutionized the field of education with his theory of "multiple intelligences." Gardner, a firm believer that there is not one but at least 7 styles of learning, helped parents and educators recognize that there are a number of different ways in which their child can be "smart." While everyone has some element of each, most people favor one or two specific styles. These styles include: Linguistically (through words and language), Logically, (through numbers and math), Musically, Bodily, Spatially and Visually, Interpersonally, and Naturally (through the natural environment). Once you know how your child best processes information, provide opportunities for them to be successful. If they respond to music and rhythm, let them choose an instrument, if they do well in the great outdoors, find a camp that will build on these skills, if it's interpersonally, find them opportunities to help others … For more information on Howard Gardner go to http://www.howardgardner.com
2. NEVER give up. Rest assured that interests and capabilities change over time. What your child struggles with one day, he suddenly "gets" another. If your child is interested in something that turns out to be not right for him, allow him the luxury of figuring it out on his own. Trust me, he will. Our job as parents is not to "save" our kids but to be supportive when they fail or make mistakes. Research shows that two of the largest predictors of future alcohol or drug abuse problems for kids are: academic pressure and disconnection from parents.
3. Focus on what your child CAN do. If your child is totally disorganized but is a whiz at math, communicate your respect for their math ability rather than harping on their lack of organization. If they bring home a B in science but a C in spelling – let them know they should be proud of themselves for the B.
4. Find ways to connect apart from schoolwork – demonstrate that while important, academic work is not everything. This can mean taking a break for a short hike, breakfast out once a week or a game of cards. The more we find ways to connect, the more relaxed our children will feel. The more relaxed they feel the more they will want to succeed.
5. Be flexible. Accept their limits and their preferences. Be willing to change your approach if it is not working. If you want them to read "Magic Treehouse" but they want to read "Captain Underpants", let them.
6. Avoid labeling. Instead, describe the situation: "Tommy has trouble sitting still," or "Mary loses her place often when reading" rather than being quick to label a child "Hyper", "ADD" or "Learning Disabled." These terms have their place especially when working with doctors and school systems, however, it is best to avoid using them blindly or around our children until we have a firm grass of the issue they are facing. You do not want them believing that their problem is something set in stone that can not be changed. Labels tend to make children feel that way.
7. Allow your children to choose what they want to read what you think they should read. Whether it's a magazine, a comic book, a below or above level book, allowing kids to choose their reading material goes a long way in getting them to read. More and more middle school teachers around the country, instead of assigning the usual "classics" are trying this approach with impressive results. (See New York Times cover story, August 29, 2009 :: "Students Get New Reading Assignment: Pick Books You Like") It is hard to get children to love and appreciate a classic until they first learn to appreciate what a book can do . Letting them choose their material offers them this opportunity.
8. Help your children recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn. Share mistakes you have made from which you learned invaluable things. Share with your children the good things that came from some of your mistakes. This is so important for helping children build resilience.
9. Believe them when they say they just do not "get it." Empathize. Share things you did not understand in school when you were younger. Avoid dismissing their claims, (especially if they are recurring) that school is too hard or too boring as just another example of not "applying themselves." Often it is more than that. Listen to what your children have to say.
10. Be pro-active. Stay implied, know their teachers, how they teach, who to go to if you have a concern or problem. Talk to other parents. Be willing to explore other options, schools, programs or tutors if need be.
(By the way, what was the book that finally grabbed my son? It was the first in a series by author Darren Shan called "Cirque Du Freak." He's now finishing up the third and will be getting the fourth and fifth in the series for his 12 birthday!)