SINGAPORE: We’ve all been there - you’re trying to help junior revise for his spelling test and he insists that he’s paying attention, yet his body language tells you otherwise. His body is slumped over the table, he fidgets endlessly, rolls his eyes when you ask a question and replies with snarky comebacks.
Most children will, at some point, show some level of disinterest in a school subject. But this doesn’t mean that they are lazy, lacking in discipline or couldn’t care less about making an effort in their studies.
However, a reluctant learner may simply not understand the subject, lacks confidence or has difficulty with comprehension and memory skills. Social and behavioural therapist Katy Harris, who has a keen interest in children’s behavioural problems, noted: “Sometimes, they are simply intimidated when offered a narrow framework of what it is to be a learner.”
Parents who are overly obsessed with academic outcome and excellence can also put a child off his studies compared to those who put the focus on the learning process - the attitude, awareness, courage and determination to do well.
“The fear of doing badly can actually create a low-grade panic that pulls a child away from the work and makes him take a detour towards ‘nicer’ experiences such as day dreaming,” Harris explained.
While motivating a reluctant learner is about as enjoyable as pulling teeth, you have ways to turn things around. Harris shared nine effective strategies to help your reluctant learner find an interest in his studies.
1. DON’T LET YOUR TODDLER START SCHOOL TOO SOON
WHY: As some tots may not be physically, mentally and emotionally ready to be in a school environment, starting school too soon could hinder their academic interest later on. If you still want junior to join a pre-school, choose one that teaches through play.
Noted Harris: “Research around the world points to the fact that playful environments have more problem-solving opportunities, and exposing a young child to a wide sense of enquiry about their world will ultimately give them the interest and confidence needed to learn faster later.”
One of the biggest benefits your child will reap from this is a stronger social and emotional life, plus a sense of self. “This develops self-motivation to be the best person one can be, rather than simply someone who does the things asked of them,” she added.
HOW TO DO IT: Look for a pre-school environment that has a wide variety of activities for your child. Find one that offers plenty of stimulation, staff trained in early childhood development and a curriculum that focuses on holistic development. It is also important to make sure your child looks happy and fulfilled.
2. CHANGE IT UP
WHY: “If we want flexible children, we must be able to approach tasks and learning from many angles and adapt to what works for each individual,” Harris explained.
Sometimes, trying to memorise the times table or spelling words can get tedious and draining. So, before you lose your child’s attention, quickly introduce another method of learning.
HOW TO DO IT: If junior is struggling in spelling, there’s no better way to boost his vocabulary and familiarity with words than through reading. This is best done with picture books, comics, hanging words around the room or even using signs that you find in public places such as toilet or exit signs, Harris said. If they prefer to enjoy words or numbers with games and conversation, focus on that.
“Make it fun, find your inner child and figure out ways to do things with enjoyment, imagination, mess, disorder and a good dose of laughter,” Harris suggested. “Feeling good provides the chemical reactions that stimulate engagement, determination and good staying power through challenges.”
3. IDENTIFY YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING STYLE
WHY: Some kids need to move more, others need calm and quiet. Some need to learn in bite-sized information, while others have the capacity to settle for longer periods.
“No one is without strengths - every individual has the potential to learn and grow,” said Harris. “If they are not, then we are not providing the right stimulus to create that, which means we must explore new avenues to engage them.”
HOW TO DO IT: There’s more information available today than ever in the history of parenting, so don’t be afraid to do research online, read parenting books and ask others for their advice and opinion. But at the same time, watch and trust yourself to have the ability to work things out. It’s all about trial and error.
“Some parents lack confidence, believing they must do things ‘right’. To them I say, don't worry, do it wrong, then correct your mistakes as you go along,” Harris advised. “Taking risks is part of learning and the more a child sees this in the home, the more open they are to slip-ups and staying on until they reach success. If parents avoid error, children will, too.”
4. SET SMALL ACHIEVABLE GOALS
WHY: Reducing goals to the “what is our next step” make them so much more doable and achievable. At the same time, don’t forget to look back and recognise junior's hard work as he strives towards attaining his goal.
HOW TO DO IT: “Notice the attributes that helped them achieve their goals,” said Harris. “The thoughts that helped, the attitudes, the courage, the ability to hold on when things were hard and their desire to accomplish their tasks.”
The more your child is aware of his strengths, the more he will apply them in his life, even at an early age.
5. KEEP A BAG OF TRICKS READY
WHY: Children are unpredictable, so it is always good to be prepared. Also, a spontaneous change, such as in a task, scenario or even the learning environment, will keep your child on his toes.
HOW TO DO IT: Simple things work, Harris pointed out. “Before doing something hard, do something easy. Before settling down to study, stretch and move your body.”
Rewards also help. Before your child has to start doing something he “should” - like writing a composition - remind him that what comes after is something he “wants”, which can be extra time playing a video game, a trip to the park or having his favourite meal for dinner.
6. OFFER SECOND CHANCES
WHY: Celebrate when they do badly and again when they do better, Harris advised. Many individuals go on to achieve success after falling short. A huge motivating force is to get kids feeling comfortable with failure, which later builds towards better results, she added.
HOW TO DO IT: It’s not always possible to be the best at something overnight as it is a process: First, you teach them how to carry out a task, then you help them figure out how to improve on it. Think of it as stretching your child’s potential to succeed, and then stretching it more and more until he eventually nails it.
For them to stretch and reach their ultimate end goal, they might have to fail now and then. Acknowledge that and help them to fail without fear.
“Kids who won’t stretch are intimidated by the idea of judgment, criticism and feeling bad,” noted Harries. “Parents should share stories of their own lessons, mistakes, determination and ‘sorry moments’ to help their children relax that fear factor.”
7. INVOLVE THEM IN THE LEARNING PROCESS
WHY: “Autonomy promotes self-motivation,” pointed out Harries. “It also creates independent learners who trust their own ability to choose and manage their way through life.”
HOW TO DO IT: Let your child have a say in what books they want to read or where they want to sit while learning their spelling words. Some kids might prefer lounging on the sofa as they memorise their times table. Throw in a YouTube video on math skills and get them to pick a learning journey of their choice, to the Botanic Gardens or a museum. Create choices for them and honour their decisions.
“Plus, do a lot less telling and a lot more asking,” added Harris.
8. DON'T CONFUSE A LACK OF INTEREST IN HIS STUDIES WITH DISOBEDIENCE
WHY: “If a child’s main job is to grow and learn and they are doing that badly, of course they will be emotionally struggling,” Harris pointed out. “They may feel jealous of others, possessive of their supporters, angry at the world or fearful of being independent.”
In other words, because it feels bad to fail, they seek alternatives that make them feel good. Unfortunately, these usually take a negative form. They may be needy, pulling others in to help them, be resistant and challenge the rules.
“They may also seek power because they feel internally powerless and have more desire to play, ask for treats or own more toys to balance the negative feelings that comes from learning,” added Harris.
HOW TO DO IT: “Listen, stay approachable, be kind and keep enquiring,” Harris suggested. Have honest and open conversations about why your child is struggling academically, so you can figure out what they are turning away from.
“It could be the length of time it takes to learn something, the mistakes that will accrue, and feeling bad if they don’t reach a certain milestone or disappoint their parents,” noted Harris.
Work out what the obstacle is, but keep in mind that your main aim is not to “remove” this obstacle, but to accept that it’s there and that needs to be acknowledged. By doing so, junior will feel seen, heard and understood. When he feels good about himself, he will also have the confidence to give more into his studies.
9. GET HELP IF YOU SUSPECT JUNIOR HAS A LEARNING DISABILITY
WHY: While this is a good idea, Harris warns parents not to do it too soon as most children don’t benefit from formal testing until they are at least seven years old. Before you decide to send junior for formal testing, speak with an expert, like a child behavioural therapist, who is better at seeing the whole child and aspects of their personality the parents might have overlooked.
HOW TO DO IT: Prepare your child and the family to cope with anything that might arise from being tested formally. Examples of common learning disabilities include dyslexia (struggling to read and understand words) and dyscalculia (difficulty with concepts like time, measurement or estimation).
However, junior could also have a behavioural disorder like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or attention deficit disorder that could be interfering with his academic performance. Once a diagnosis is made, you can then work together to help your child manage it.
A version of this story first appeared in SmartParents