Ways We Learn

With school starting again, education is front and center.  Most everyone has a new teacher, perhaps new students in the class, and some even have a new school.  Soon, if not already, there will be homework, and familiar struggles with children who would rather be doing something else.  With so much pressure these days on both children and parents for academic success, this may be a good time to think about how our children learn best, and how we as parents can best be helpful.

One thing certain is that even though children are taught in classes, that does not mean they are all in the same place or that they all learn in the same way.  For each child will find some things easier to master and others more challenging.  Children often resist working at things they are not good at, or don’t come easily to them.  This in turn can lead to pressure both from school and home, which then creates more resistance  in an endless cycle.

Children don’t always ask for help when they need it.  At times, some feel ashamed to show they didn’t get what the teacher was explaining – especially if it seems that others did.  Others may feel there is something wrong with them and try to hide it in various ways.  Some may fool around, or seem inattentive, or even provoke others sitting next to them.  These days, schools in particular are too quick to think in terms of attention deficit disorder.

Many times I have been asked to observe a child in school because of concerns about attention or behavior problems.  As an experienced observer, it becomes clear that the child is unable to do the work, or is experiencing difficulty with the assignment and is either avoiding tackling it, or trying to cover up the difficulty.  Sometimes, what looks like annoying another child, is really at attempt to get help from the other child.  At times this may signal an underlying learning disability, but more often it may be specific to a particular area of work.

Along these lines was a wonderful essay by Joshua Henkin in The New York Times Book Review of August 25th.  Titled A NOSE FOR WORDS, Henkin describes his earlier problem with vocabulary to the extent that he needed remedial help.  He talks about carrying the test prep book around as though just taking it with him would improve his vocabulary.  He credits his father with having developed in him a love of words, and describes how his father would come home every day with a list of words he had come across that day. 

These seemingly esoteric words intrigued him as he was sure they had never appeared in the history of the SAT. He fell in love with the sound, sight, feel, smell, and taste of them.  Henkin quotes Flannery O’Connor, who said, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses,” and to this day, certain words still evoke colors and smells he associates with these words.  Henkin tells how wanting shortcuts he would resist when his father told him to “look it up”.  Asked to define “adhere”, and thinking it was easy, he found he could not actually put it into other words.  His father marched him to the bathroom, took out a box of band-aids with the word “adhesive” printed across the front, saying, “They stick to you.”  Henkin writes, “And the meaning of the words stuck to me, in turn.”

Some time ago, on a family trip to Hawaii, my son as a young adult who had just started driving, drove our rented car from the airport to our destination inland.  After one or two minutes he seemed to know exactly how to turn and go to get there.  I asked him later how he was able to do that since none of us knew the way, and it was the first time any of us had been there.  He explained that he never has been able  to know his right from left – as a young child he struggled with dyslexia – and so when he gets somewhere new, the first thing he does is look for some way to orient himself.  He quickly discovered here that the ocean was on one side and the mountains on the other.  He then used that fact to guide him.

Some years later I told this story to a group I was asked to speak to about helping children with learning difficulties.  After the talk, a young woman came up to speak to me and told me that she had been raised and educated in Hawaii.  There they were taught to think in terms of the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.  She was fascinated that my son had figured out what had been used there as an educational tool.

These days, that approach is known as developing compensatory strategies.  What that means is finding a way that works for a particular individual – another way to learn the material that is causing difficulty.  This is where parents can be especially helpful because we know our own children best.  If we pay attention to where they get stuck, we may discover what the sticking points are, and that can often help us find the kind of band-aid that will stick.


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