What to do When Bright Children Struggle With Reading
From my inbox this morning:
“My daughter is in grade 3 and has always struggled. It’s getting worse as now she is questioning self-worth, what an awful system we have that this could happen outside the home. She is very in tune with what is expected at school and realizes she is not meeting requirements. I figure she is a right-brain as with everything outside of school she is sharp as a tack.”
We receive this type of communication on a regular basis: “My child is bright everywhere except in the classroom and his failure in the classroom is impacting him negatively in terms of how he views himself.” My heart aches for these children and for their parents! It is especially hard when parents suspect their failing child is right-brained, because these children have so much potential, so much giftedness, feel things deeply, are so in tune with others, and yet once you squash their spirits with failure, these children can totally shut down.
Two critical actions to take when your child fails
The minute you discover that your child is struggling with reading, ACT. Please don’t assume it will just get better the older she gets. Don’t assume that her teacher will know what to do to help. Don’t even assume that the special needs team will know what to do. You know your child better than anyone does, and if you observe that she is smart and capable outside the classroom, yet she is failing IN the classroom, please don’t rush into testing her for learning disabilities (although it might be helpful to get her eyes checked in order to rule out vision problems.) The first two actions to take are to try something radically different to see if she responds positively (does she learn quickly using a different approach?) and at the same time, direct her attention to her giftedness and away from her failure.
Think of it this way… if you see your kitchen going up in flames, would you decide to analyze the fire to determine its source? “Let’s see, could the wiring be faulty?” No! You grab the fire extinguisher and let it fly on the flames. After the fire is out is the time to do some investigation and hopefully prevention.
Try something radically different
When a parent calls to talk about their non-beginner who is struggling, I never recommend a tricky, complicated fix. Usually it is helpful to try a handful of SnapWords® to test the waters. If the struggling child is attracted to the images and quickly picks up the material because of the teaching method, we know that the child benefits from right-brained elements in his learning. At this point, so many positive things have already happened:
1. We have identified quickly that there is a successful way to approach the child’s learning,
2. We have directed the scrutiny away from the child and his failures, and
3. We have created a situation in which the child experiences some rapid success. The outcome is that we will be able to positively reinforce the child and his brain’s ability to learn!
Step away from the failure and focus on giftedness
When I speak to parents of very discouraged children, I talk first about the child and what is going on and then we focus on what materials might be helpful. Throughout this, though, I always reinforce to the parent the importance of sharing with their child something like the following:
"Up until now we’ve been missing the boat in how we taught you. You are so smart in how you learn and remember, and we have been teaching you in a way that is slower. Images are fast! As fast as a blink of an eye! Let’s do it the easy way, and thank goodness, you are really, really good at remembering visuals."
A new belief needs to be reinforced until it has time to really take hold and flourish. As we support our children, we can help them achieve little successes that will in turn lead to bigger ones. With our help, children can learn about their own learning strengths and how to channel those strengths to help themselves; this new knowledge will stand them in good stead as they progress through their years in school.
Recognize that what the brain hears, it accepts as fact
It would be really interesting to conduct an experiment about people believing as fact things that they repeatedly hear. Just how much can positive beliefs and a positive environment impact the achievement level of a particular class? Say a teacher is given her class list at the beginning of the year and she is given student reports that have been doctored up a bit. So instead of reading that “Anthony tries hard, but he is two grade levels below where he should be in reading” and “Jeremy is failing, but it is because he doesn’t try” the teacher would be led to believe that both boys are academic whizzes.
I believe that this mental prompt would have an impact on the teacher and how she views the students and how she teaches them. She will transmit her assumption that her students will do well, shaping how they think about their abilities, and, in turn, impacting their performance. What we convey to our children can absolutely make or break them academically and in life.
Remember, what the brain hears, it believes and accepts as fact.
Remember, what the brain hears, it believes and accepts as fact. If I tell a child, “You have a learning disability,” the child might hear, “Don’t even bother to try because it won’t do any good. Your brain is broken.”
Harness the power in positive emotions
I talked a lot about the strengths and gifts of visual and other right-brained learners here on the blog. Please take advantage of this content as you set out to encourage your child. It is critical that we immediately create a safe environment for failing children (free of exposure to negative attention), one in which they can feel good about their abilities, one in which they can succeed, and so forth. The reason this is so important is that as a person thinks, so is she. Once a child gets the idea in her head that she is inferior, she will BE that.
If you can just get a child to truly believe he can do it, he WILL do it and in many cases will rise far above his potential. Conversely, once a child is convinced that she cannot learn, she will not. That is how powerful a role our emotions play in our lives.