Dear Dr. Fournier:
What advice would you give to a parent who is sending their child off to school for the first time? I have been fortunate. I was able to quit work when my daughter was born and have stayed home with her. She has never been to a daycare or preschool, but she loves to learn. I had my daughter late, so I have friends who talk about their kid’s experiences in school. So many have children who are so turned off. I am constantly hearing about the struggles with homework, the kids in tutoring and parents angry at their children for not doing their work. My husband and I speak about this a lot. We do not want this to be our experience.
St. Louis, MO
Many times over the years I have heard similar descriptions from parents about their children’s attitude towards school. They send children to school who can’t wait to go because they love to learn, and in just a few years they have a child who hates anything that even sounds like school or learning because they “can’t do it.”
The underlying question is clear:
What happens during the educational process that turns a child away from school? In my work with children over the years, I have witnessed a cycle of disappointment and grief that leads to the lack of what I call an “I cando” attitude. Here’s how the typical cycle develops:
- DISAPPOINTMENT: Just as young children haven’t mastered the concepts of time and money, it is equally hard to understand the concept of a grading scale. If interpreted correctly, a number or letter grade is simply intended to show how much more a child needs to learn. Instead, a young child learns the cause and effect of grades: If I bring home a low grade, then my parents are unhappy. Over time, as they perceive their school efforts to be a source of disappointment, it should be no surprise that they view themselves as a disappointment.
- GRIEF: When children have experienced enough grades that say to them:
“I disappoint those I want to please,” then grief enters the picture. They grieve the loss of the belief that they can please their parents. They grieve the loss of the right to be rewarded with grades that reflect their effort. And ultimately, they grieve the loss of the belief that they can be successful learners.
- LACK OF “I CAN DO”: I believe our children’s grief is what destroys in them the desire to continue approaching learning from a position of hope and aspiration. This grief eventually destroys ambition and the desire to strive. These children are further wounded by well-intentioned comments from teachers and parents such as, “I know you can do better,” or “You need to try harder.” Child’s interpretation: “They think I didn’t try, but I did. Now, I know I’m stupid.”
The result of this cycle is pain, hurt and frustration For parents whose children are just starting school, it’s a cycle to avoid. For parents whose children have already experienced disappointment, its a cycle to break.
WHAT TO DO
Tessa, start by accepting and truly understanding that if your child knew everything, you would not send her to school.
When your child starts to bring home her papers, use her grades simply as a signal to show what learning she has mastered and what she has left to learn. Grades are a symbol that your child is learning and accepts the effort and striving that is required to be a continuous learner. A response might be, “Let’s see all the things you have shown on these papers that you have learned. This is great!” For the points that were missed, this too is a reason to celebrate. Now, you know what still needs to be learned by your child.
Our children will continue to embrace learning if they perceive that the learning does not jeopardize relationships at home. Commendable reactions do not require that you overlook missed learning; it requires joy in recognizing what has been learned and what still needs to be learned. Commendable reactions say to our children, “I love the way you continue to strive for success.”
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER
Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at firstname.lastname@example.org.