Seven-year-old Marissa is in the 1st grade. Reading comes easy to her. Spelling and writing are fun. Teachers smile a great deal in their interactions with Marissa and make nice comments on her papers and projects. Marissa’s parents react positively to their daughter’s school performance, regularly posting her work and the teacher’s comments on the refrigerator. As a result, Marissa derives much gratification from her school experience. The successful outcomes and praise add “emotional fuel” to Marissa’s growing reserves. As time goes by, this fuel will serve Marissa well for meeting the inevitable challenges of school.

Nothing in the Gas Tank Causes Shut-Down Learning

Compare the scenario above with Emily, who is the same age but has the exact opposite experience as Marissa. For Emily, preschool, kindergarten and 1st grade have been a total struggle. Learning the alphabet and the sounds that go along with the letters has been excruciating. When Emily tries to read words, it pains her. Reading aloud is embarrassing.

There are many Emilys in every school district of the country. These children quickly become victims to a negative feedback loop. Negative reactions, both subtle and overt, significantly affect such children. Deriving little gratification from school encounters, a child starts to shut down and become disconnected by degrees. Like air leaking out of the tire, over time there is a lack of emotional fuel to carry the child along.

Understanding Your Role

To counter the downward spiral of the academically struggling child, the parents and teachers in the child’s life must pay close attention to the child’s schooling. Support and empathy counter the child’s negative feelings, insecurity and limited sense of gratification. With this empathy and support, the child acquires emotional fuel from parents and teachers. The fuel allows the child to work through academic difficulties.

I see this all of the time with the children I assess for learning disabilities. Underneath the learning challenges is a deep sense of insecurity and often a sense of defectiveness. However, once a child feels more understood, a weight is lifted. And the child relies on the emotional fuel to tackle challenges.

The same is true of good remedial tutoring. Certainly the skills being developed are of great importance. Yet, of equal value is the encouraging, supportive relationship among the tutor and the child. This relationship is particularly crucial for discouraged children. Discouraged children are demoralized and disheartened. They do not perceive hope and they lack enthusiasm for meeting challenges. They need positive relationships to counter their discouragement.

Adding Fuel to the Tank

Parents and teachers can implement the following pointers to add emotional fuel to a child’s reserves.

Assume discouragement if a child is struggling

A struggling child may not tell you he or she is discouraged. Even if the child maintains a cheery demeanor, assume a certain amount of discouragement. Small empathetic comments go a long way. Consider empowering communication such as, “Honey, I know this is hard for you. School was hard for me, too, a lot of the time.”

Watch yelling and sarcasm

It’s easy to lash out at a child who doesn’t seem to be trying. But, yelling and sarcastic statements are extremely hurtful to kids.

Play a game

Play-based interactions give children an abundance of energy. I love playing a game called Undo with kids. The game is not long and drawn out, and it interests kids and adults alike. Kids get great emotional fuel from interacting with adults during games. Take the time to play a game or two with your child each week.

Embrace your child’s strengths

Many of the struggling shut-down learners I see are wonderful with hands-on activities. These “Lego kids” thrive with visual and spatial activities. Does your child work well with interactive learning? Then find related activities to do with your child. Design clothes together. Build a model. Make a diorama. Have fun!

Enlist your child as a helper

Some of you parents may remember the good old days when there were actual blackboards in schools. Kids loved to be the eraser monitors— the ones who got to go outside and clean the erasers against the walls. Find tasks like this for your child to do in school and at home to give him or her a sense of competency. They will love these active chores, and flourish because of them.

Children are not car engines that can be fixed

But by strengthening your relationship with your children with support and compassion, kids attain renewed energy for overcoming their deficit areas. Encouraging your child in multiple ways adds emotional fuel to help your child go the distance.

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