Helping Children Learn

Some weeks ago I wrote about children not making the connection between mastering something and the work it takes to get there. They often think they should know something without having learned it. What they miss is the process of learning – that knowing something or being able to do something is the result of a process which may go smoothly but often has some bumps. If they hit a bump they may too quickly think that means they can’t learn it, or do it.

As parents and teachers we, too, may at times forget that learning is a process. Hopefully, at the end of that process children will be where too often we want them to be at the start. A new school year will be starting soon, and each year I have the privilege of talking to a group of teachers about the year ahead. I always try to remind them that the new group of children will not be starting where the old group left off. At the end of the previous year it was such a pleasure to see how far the children had come. But the new group is at the beginning, not at the end of that road.

Of course, as parents we are not dealing with a new child each year. We do sometimes have to remind ourselves with a younger child that she is not in the same place as her older sibling, and also that her way of learning may differ. But each of our children is continuing to move forward from where he or she is now, rather than where either was a year ago.

At times it may seem from children’s behavior that they are moving backward, not forward. It can be frustrating when we thought our children had mastered something, only to find it “unlearned”. That can happen sometimes after a summer break or other vacation, a stressful event, even an illness. It can be harder to be patient when we believe a child already knows how to do something and isn’t doing it. Our expectation changes and so does our attitude.

But at times this seeming to move backwards, or staying in the same place, happens when children hit one of those bumps in learning. They get stuck, and because the next step is not coming easily they conclude it is too hard, or it’s something they’re not good at, or they are not able to learn it. This is when they think they should just know something without the work of learning it. Often their way of handling that is to give up, to put their attention elsewhere, to resist the task at hand, or to act silly or babyish.

A challenge of teaching, in a classroom or as a parent, is to help children over these bumps. In meeting this challenge, one of the things I have found most helpful to remember is that nothing succeeds like success. Being successful and feeling successful is a great motivator for sticking with something. That’s what can dispel the idea that “I’m just not good at this”, or “I can’t do this”. So how can we help a child be and feel successful when he seems not to be getting something?

Too often we do this by trying to pull or push the child forward when actually we need to go back. We need to go back to the place where he had mastered a previous step and was doing it successfully. I’ve seen how this works with children who are learning to read, or play an instrument, or master a sport skill. You may hear a child say, “That was easy”, after doing something he knows how to do. An adult may feel that it is meaningless if a child just does what was “too easy” for him.

Actually, it is that feeling of being successful that can help a child be willing to try a next step. After all, what seems easy now may not have started out that way. If he or she wants just to stay at that good place for a while, that’s o.k. too, as long as we remember to use that success to lead gradually to what comes next. And, hopefully, not to make the next step one that is too big for a given child’s stride.

The same thing is true as it relates to behavioral mastery. From the very beginning, whether it is giving up the bottle, toilet training, using utensils, dressing oneself, or any other developmental step, there may be regressions or resistance to taking a next step along the way. We can’t let our own changed expectation get in the way of going back to an earlier stage that was successful in order to eventually move forward once again.

Although not as monumental as a moon landing, one small step for a child may be a giant step in learning.

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