Riding the Bumps in Learning

Children often don’t make 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 we, too, may at times forget that learning is a process. Hopefully, at the end of that process children will be where we may want them to be at the start. We 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 vacation, a stressful event, even an illness. It may be happening now during this prolonged school break when everyone is under stress. 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 for parents is how to help children over these bumps. In meeting this challenge, one of the things 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. It is that feeling of being successful that can help a child be willing to try a next step.

Such an approach may be especially useful now when there is no structured school day and children may have some resistance to online education. This may mean a reduction of stress for some, while at the same time a way to avoid work that may seem too hard. As parents, the worry that children may fall behind can lead to unhelpful pressure. But children enjoy telling us what they know how to do, which is a good place to start.

Recognition for what you know how to do is a great motivator for taking that next step forward.