Hi Dr. Singer,
My child is in 6th grade and he does very well at things like sports. He doesn’t do as well with academic things like Math, Science etc. He isn’t failing, but it doesn’t come easily to him. He is very aware of other kids getting it faster than he does. We have never been the kind of parents to express anger about grades since the grades are always average but the older he is getting, the more frustrated and upset he is getting about not doing well at the academics. We feel that he is strong in sports and does average in academics so he should feel good about himself, yet he doesn’t and it concerns us. We have been to a tutor but the academics don’t improve. We’d like him to feel better about himself and wonder if our perspective about focusing on his strengths and forgetting his weakness isn’t the best way to think. Of all people out there, we thought you would be helpful. We’ve been reading you for a lot of years and it seems like your answer here would be very worthwhile. G.T.
Thanks for being such an avid reader of my columns. Yes, I do have lots to say about what your son is experiencing. First and most importantly is the way your son is feeling about himself. Kids are acutely aware when they are not doing well at something. Even if they are doing well at something else. When a child is intelligent and something isn’t clicking right, they try and try and try and then get frustrated and may start to avoid the work altogether or become depressed or overly anxious. Of course the situation becomes worse when parents are set on the child’s grades being perfect. Thankfully, you are not that way with him. I think it’s o.k. for parents to require effort on the child’s part and also to ask the child to get good grades. It is imperative for parents to understand, though, when something is not quite clicking for the child, they need to get the child the right help so they can get the “click” to work and thus take away the frustration and bad feelings. Kids do know when they are not doing well. Doing well at one thing does not take away the feelings of not doing well at another.
From what you have told me, and the fact that tutoring has been tried and has not worked, I suspect that your child has problems with at least processing speed and memory. Those are two things that are absolutely required for Math skills to do well. Think about what is required with Math. You have to be able to do multiple levels of solving that takes some time. If your memory and/or processing speed are not up to where they should be, by the time you get to the 3rd step, you might be lost as to where you were and where you are going. When most kids get lost there, they start to space out or avoid the work completely, especially if they have asked for help already. They do not want to look stupid so they just sit and don’t do anything further. That’s normal behavior for any child who is suffering with this. There may be more going on with processing than that, but those are usually the 2 big ones that slow down that subject. These are processing problems that are often mistaken for laziness or ADD. Many times, parents will find crumpled up, thrown away homework or find missing assignments in book bags. Of course, most of the time parents get very angry and upset when they find these things because it looks like purposeful behavior by the child, but it really isn’t. In my experience, usually it is more about avoidance behavior. The child trying to avoid a painful problem so they just “disappear” it. Sometimes it is about embarrassment. A child who has tried his best and then the work just isn’t good and the child knows it. You’d be amazed at how many kids I have met who are great at sports or music etc. and they still are throwing away homework or worse yet, doing the homework and then not turning it in. Parents are very dismayed when they stay up until all hours of the night with the kid to get it done but then the child doesn’t get it handed in. Unfortunately, many of these parents don’t find out about this until weeks later and then it’s tough to go back and fix. Even more unfortunately, many parents don’t realize what is really going on to cause this and so it keeps happening and destroying the quality of the family’s life.
I cannot stress enough that the losing homework, throwing it away, not remembering assignments is not usually about laziness and not usually about attention. More often, in my experience, it is about processing skills that are not on track. Especially when you say to me that tutoring has been tried and has not worked. More importantly, when you see a child who has some strengths but is still getting overwhelmed by other things, it is a true sign of processing problems because you can have some skills that are great and some that are weak and stagnated and blame a biological problem. This is what creates the frustration and the feeling in the child that something is not clicking right and they should be able to do the task.
Let me also just say one thing about focusing only on the strength and letting the weakness be in the background. Let’s say you break your right arm and it is the arm you usually use and it is put in a cast for 8 weeks. During that time, you use your left arm again and again and aging making it very strong and the arm of choice for your activities. Now the cast comes off and your right arm is weak and you still use your left arm because now your left arm is more comfortable for you to use. Would any Doctor tell you to just keep using your left arm and forget about the right one? No way! That Doc would tell you to get some physical therapy on the right arm and bring it back to it’s former glory so you could have a balanced ability on both sides of your body. Processing skills are no different. Processing problems happen because of habits that form from weaknesses that exist. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say “he is a visual learner so let’s present everything in a visual way.” Presenting everything visually to that child may make things look better for a little while, but as the years go by and the material gets tougher and the independence requirements get harder, that “visual” child is going to also need the auditory skills and they will be weak or almost crippled because of lack of use and presenting everything to the visual sense. This is why practicing can fix these problems and make life easier for these kids. Remember that this kind of thing is mistaken for laziness and/or attention problems all the time. Practice is the key to bringing it back around and making it easier for the child so he or she can feel good about all the areas of their life and not just one or two.
Regarding the tutor, tutors are great, after you fix the processing foundation. If you tutor before you fix the processing habits, the success level will not be as good. This would be like having cracks in the foundation of your house that are making your bricks lay funny and instead of fixing the foundation first, you fix the bricks sitting on that foundation first. If you fix the bricks first, the foundation cracks will still exist and the bricks will fall again and again needing repair over and over again. If you fix the foundation cracks first and then get the bricks fixed, your house will be strong and not need the repair again. Tutoring is terrific for after the foundation is repaired.
So, don’t be surprised that doing well at the sports is not enough for him. He wants to do well in all areas of his life, especially at the age he’s at. He needs help in building up the weak areas and practicing them so he can feel good about himself. Self-esteem is not something that happens from talking about your problems, although if you feel he is in need of it, doing some counseling might be a good idea. Talking can make you more aware of your problems and while important, should not be all you do. You have to go in and fix the weaknesses so they don’t exist anymore and the child can get on with it at a faster speed and with more success, so feeling good about himself can be uninterrupted.
One last thing…be very excited about his strength in sports and don’t use it as a way to force adherence to academics. He needs to feel good about the things that come naturally while working on the things that don’t. We all need to celebrate our successes!
A question from a reader...
Hi Dr. Singer,
We have 2 kids and my wife has scheduled each of them in so many activities their heads are spinning. I don’t like this and have told her that, but she thinks that because she always had every minute of her childhood scheduled that this is the right thing to do. I was one of those kids who had lazy summer days catching frogs and hanging out and I think I was and am better off for it. Which one of us is right and what do you think about this? E.F.
There are 2 sides to this issue and I don’t mean yours and hers. My first inclination is to agree that too much scheduling and too many activities are going to inundate the kids and may frustrate them as well. I think for kids to truly figure out what they like to do and what they have a strength with, they need to try things one or two at a time. Free time to just play and just kick back for kids is so important for them. I also have lots of good memories just hanging out and riding bikes and sun tanning. There were days that the sky was so blue it looked like an Everlasting Gobstopper. The clouds were so perfectly white and soft looking and I can remember lying on the grass with my friends and just being and doing nothing felt great as a child.
Now for the other part. This is not the same world anymore. Unfortunately, we have lots of predators out there and many parents are afraid to have their kids just wandering like we used to be able to. It makes me really sad and angry to think that our kids don’t have the same ability to just enjoy being free as we did, but the plain hard truth is that it exists and sometimes activities that are scheduled with adult supervision is the way to go, especially if the parent cannot be there all the time to supervise kids just being.
The best of all worlds is if a parent or parents can be there to supervise to let the kids just be, in a limited amount of space. You don’t let them just take off on their bikes, but maybe they can ride around the block if they’re old enough. If it can’t happen every day of the week, maybe schedules can be moved so parents can be there to have at least a few days of the week to let the kids just have unscheduled fun.
Let me say something else about all the activities. You didn’t mention this, but I have heard it enough times from other parents that I think it’s worth mentioning. Lots of parents I meet sign their kids up for an activity and then if the child doesn’t like it and wants to quit, the parent digs in and says “no way.” The parent wants the kid to stick it out so they don’t become quitters. I have had a lot of parents ask me if I think it is ok, with the clear agenda that they want me to support their idea that it is not. I don’t agree with that at all. I think that the healthiest, most successful adults are those who know what they like and know what they don’t like. They don’t just stay stuck in something they aren’t feeling good about. They use that information to move on and find what does feel good to them. Now, obviously if this is the 16th activity in 16 days, that’s a problem with commitment and I would ask for more responsibility on the child’s part for the decisions, but if it’s the first activity chosen and it isn’t working for the child, 86 it and let the child pick something else! That doesn’t make a quitter. It makes a person who knows how to make a moveand not be stuck if the surroundings are not right. It also helps the child find what his or her strengths are and what is fun for him or her.
The one place I do not budge with regard to too many activities is when the activities interfere with good sleep. It is imperative that kids have enough sleep to be able to function and do well with school work. Sleep deprivation has been mislabeled as ADHD and behavior disorders in many cases and the symptoms that go along with them can be a lack of sleep instead. To learn more about things that can get in the way of the school day find my ebook here ...
So, I’m not picking sides here, and I think you guys need to come to some safe compromise that will allow some free, fun time for the kids just to be, and some scheduled time for one or two activities, not ten. Hope this helps!
Btw...I am very proud that my daughter did the art work for the photo on this post!!!
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