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!