June 04, 2014

Dealing with a child's failure as opportunity

My son does well in school. We expect it. As an educator myself, I've done everything I can to prepare him for the requirements of school and set him up to be successful and responsible for his own learning. Lucky for me, he's a natural "learner." He likes school. He likes his teachers. And he does well enough socially (he's a bit on the young side and an only child, so he struggles from time to time in that arena). Plus, he's unbelievably kind and accepting of other kids, which makes him easy to take advantage of (something we are working on). 

In elementary school, there are daily assignments, quizzes, tests, math timings (like the one above), recess (his favorite thing, of course), art projects, field trips (not as many as he'd like), and fun days that the class earns through good behavior. The kids get awards and recognition, fair treatment for transgressions. All in all, he's happy there, and I'm happy that he's happy. He's moved right along this year, even excelled in certain areas...mainly reading and math. That's why, on Monday, when he brought me his math timing (which earned a 10/21...the worst he's done all year - his last "not so great" score was 17/21), my eyebrows raised and my brow furrowed. Now, these timings don't mean much. It's not like he'll fail first grade if he doesn't pass it. But, I was surprised. Actually, I'll admit it - I was downright shocked. Maybe I shouldn't care so much, but my jaw dropped, and the overbearing parent in me was about to say, "What the hell happened here? We're you spacing off? Daydreaming? Drawing pictures on the desk?" But the objective teacher in me looked at his paper and saw an opportunity.

"What happened here?" I said, in a soft concerned voice.

"I don't know..." he responded. 

"You know this stuff. You've done it on homework a hundred times. Were you tired or confused?"

"I just can't do it." His bottom lip began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.

"Buddy, you know how I feel about the word can't. It's a dirty word in this house."

"But I just couldn't figure these out. I did my best."

So I looked carefully at his paper. It wasn't just that he'd not been "fast enough" (I get the whole concept of math fluency with basic facts), he'd actually gotten 3 of them wrong. So I asked him about the ones he got wrong, just to prove that he knew how to do it. I figured it must just be the stress of the timer that had gotten him. 

"What's 9-7?" I said, with a look on my face that said 'come on, you know this'.

He gave me a hopeful and questioning look as he answered, "4?"

My mind began to reel? Seriously? He excelled on the subtraction unit earlier in the year. He did well on the assessment at the end of the unit. Where did all his knowledge go?  As a teacher, I had to consider this, because I see it all the time as younger kids develop. All of the sudden, a student who has done typically well, hits a wall, or falls backwards a few steps. The parents freak out, wonder if they need a tutor, wonder if their child has been hit in the head and unknowingly contracted a concussion. 

I'm not a doctor, so I can't give a scientific explanation, but developmentally, this appears to be normal. Kids who jump ahead fast sometimes suffer from what I call "peaks and valleys" syndrome. Some students plug along at a turtle's pace and get to the finish line with little fanfare and few major disappointments or overwhelming successes. Other students seem to take years to "get it" and then everything just clicks and a whole year's worth of curriculum is suddenly at their fingertips. And still others, like mine, seem to make these amazing leaps and then suffer from what I can only conclude is academic amnesia on a regular basis. I think what happens is that a part of their subconscious brain gets it. But, their conscious mind blocks it from really settling, so it sort of floats in and out until it finally finds a home and decides to stay.

Anyhow, rather than chastising him for not paying attention (which he probably wasn't) or not applying himself, I decided to try a different approach.

"Do you think you need some help?"

With his bottom lip prominently pronounced, he replied, "Yes."

"I could practice with you. When is your next timing?"

He told me he had two more chances to pass this timing before the end of the school year. Basically, the kids are given timings and they pass as many as they can before the end of the year. Not all kids are on the same timing. Some are working on addition, others are working on subtraction, some are working on review. So, I'm actually pretty proud that he made it through all of them, since it's a goal, not a requirement. He doesn't know that, though, and is determined to finish ALL of the timings. So...two more chances.

I sat down and made several worksheets with 21 problems, set the timer on the stove, and watched him struggle, slowly, to make sense of the problems, even when they repeated. It wasn't working, and he was getting frustrated.

So, instead (and I'm no math teacher...but this seemed to work!), I just wrote out the 10's (10-1, 10-2, 10-3...etc.). Then, I pointed at each one and asked him for the answer. Then I sped it up. I repeated the questioning, moving faster and faster, until he didn't hesitate with any of the answers. This morning when I quizzed him in the car, he remembered them all, without a problem. 

I remember whole class choral recitations of the multiplication tables. That "kill and drill" boring memorization stuff I did in school. But, guess what? I learned my math facts. 

Sometimes, the old way is the best way. And it doesn't always have to be fun. Last night, as I watched my son sweat his way through the practice, fail, tear up, and ask for another try. I saw something in him that I wish I saw in more kids (hell, I'd like to see it in more adults): determination. He didn't care if he was having fun. It wasn't about that. He didn't care if he wasn't being entertained (we do way too much of that nowadays). He just wanted to conquer the task set before him. It was internal motivation, propelled completely by his own disappointment in himself.

Quite often, the boy just plain amazes me.

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