Ability to learn can hinge on what children think of themselves

We all want our children to learn easily and well. No one wants a child to be a failure at school. We try hard to help them. Why, then, do so many children run into difficulty with reading, math, writing? There are many reasons, of course, including incompetent or unloving teachers, stress at home, and so on. But one major reason shows up regardless of external factors, and that is the child's self-concept.

I have worked for several years as a teacher and math tutor. I almost never see a child who feels good about himself or herself having trouble with learning. Minor confusions, yes, but not the accumulation of confusion that ends up in a need for tutoring. Those children who feel good about themselves ask for help as they go along. When they are confused, they say so. Having trouble is not a moral issue. It is just one of those things that happens, and a reason for getting help.

The other children are the ones I see - the ones with such an inner certainty about their stupidity or badness that they never dare ask for help. That would be too humiliating. Each confusion adds another self-inflicted blow. Each mistake starts the inner voices that point fingers and blame and speak of stupidity. The torture becomes all the more painful as they watch others around them understand and go on, while they lag behind.

They are not helped at all by the common view adults take of the situation. In our frustration we may unwittingly add to the hurt and the blame. We speak of ''not trying hard enough.'' We point out the wandering attention, the hours spent not accomplishing anything, and we blame the symptoms of the problem. ''Well, if you would only work at it.'' (Do we eagerly tackle problems way beyond our level? Rarely, yet we routinely expect it of children.) We get angry and impatient in the name of helping. We do not see the wounds already there. No wonder they have trouble.

How do we help one with bruises and hurts? With loving care, with comfort, with tenderness. The same balm is needed by one with mental hurts and bruises, even more, since those hurts are often years old before we notice. It is not terribly complicated. It does require more patience and love and sympathy than we often show. It does require that we not only stop blaming children for the difficulties they have, but help them begin to unload those great burdens already on their shoulders.

They need our help - not necessarily with flash-cards, but with our voices. They need to hear over and over the message that our love is not dependent on their performance, that we will treasure them, love them, and think highly of them no matter how much trouble they have learning something. They need to hear our complete certainty that they have the ability they need. They need our praise of how hard they have struggled, and our understanding of the deep discouragement they often feel. They need our hope, our love.

Then they can learn. When I begin tutoring someone, I talk about this. They nod with relief as I talk about how terrible it is to feel dumb all the time and to worry about others finding out. Yes, they say, that is what it is like. I promise them I will never think they are dumb, no matter how many mistakes they make, no matter how many times we need to go over the same ground. I tell them it is not their fault they have trouble, that they just got confused once upon a time and were too scared to get the help they needed, so it snowballed.

I encourage them to make mistakes with me, so we can find the confusions. I urge them not to try to impress me, for I am impressed already. They relax. They look at me with love and relief so evident on their faces it hurts to think what they must feel the rest of the time, since this small bit of affirmation is so crucial. Then they begin to learn - sometimes slowly, sometimes with amazing speed. The more they relax, the faster they learn.

These children have accumulated enough pressure to last them a lifetime. What they need from us is not more, but love and acceptance. That is the best help we can give them.

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