A decade ago, when I was in graduate school, I could hardly contain my excitement when the time came for taking remedial reading courses. I just couldn't wait to find the answers to questions that had plagued me about why seemingly bright children struggled to learn to read. Imagine my chagrin when I found that the classes prepared me to test, detect mistakes, track reading rates, and classify text as to reading levels. In short, I learned to do everything but successfully teach reading to a non-reader.
Over the past ten years, I have learned about a whole array of classifications for disabilities. There are so many! One could get the impression that children are getting more and more broken, and we are developing more and more detailed labels for describing them. What I have not seen, however, is more and more evolved solutions to accompany all this highly classified collection of labels. The solutions are what have always interested me!
Should we change the child or the educational system?
If we continue to examine the child, we are "pitting" thousands of children against one educational system. There is one specific educational approach with tiny variations here and there, but there are thousands upon thousands of unique children out there. Which are we going to scrutinize? The children or the method? Which are we going to measure against the other?
Imagine taking your five children to shop for clothes. You walk into Kid's Clothes dragging your children after you. Kid's Clothes is very organized and research-based to give you, the shopper, the best shopping experience. There is a long rack of boys' shirts, another of boys' pants, a long rack of girls' dresses, etc. So, you take your girls to their area and the boys to theirs. Within a few hours all of you are distressed and upset. You have only one child that fits into the clothes! OH NO! The other four children are ALL WRONG!
When we focus on children and label them using a term that sounds absolute and professional, the child will become that even more! (Imagine pouring concrete into a wooden form and watching it set up). A day that is branded in my memory is a day I was subbing for a fourth-grade teacher. I entered the room and was accosted by a very articulate boy who announced assertively, "I am Tim. I have ADHD and I can't control myself." And he spent the rest of the day proving it. He informed me very succinctly, every few moments, what he couldn't help doing. He was living up perfectly to his diagnosis and its description.
The more we focus on the imagined problem with the child, the less effective we will be as their teachers. When I was a little girl trying to learn to ride a bike, there were two things I wanted to NOT hit as I wobbled across the yard. One was our concrete block house, and the other one was a particularly thorny orange tree. The more I wanted to avoid hitting those obstacles, the more I looked at them, the more unerringly my bike steered right into them! If I am teaching my daughter, and my mind is focused on her inability to memorize spelling words, my disbelief in her will be transmitted to her wordlessly, and my focus on the problem will become her focus as well. Nothing good will come of this.
Every adult I have talked to about themselves can describe at what they excel, what they enjoy doing, how they remember things, etc. Some of us know clearly that we can't hear verbal directions and recall them for more than a nanosecond, so we help ourselves by relying on maps to navigate by. Other people can do complex math problems in their heads.
Why is it then, that we assume every single child should be able to memorize strings of letters (spelling) or memorize math facts, or memorize and apply phonics rules? Does this make sense? I don't think it does. We are all wonderfully designed to perform exactly what we should in our lifetimes, and none of us should compare ourselves to the other person. We don't tend to as adults, but with children, we try every way possible to get them to fit into a narrow educational mold. Oh dear!
Let's look at our traditional educational system. It flat doesn't work for many children. So, the question is, do we change it or try to change our children to make them fit into the system?
Strategies for teaching children, and especially children who are struggling to learn
Get rid of the unnecessary clutter. For instance, in teaching reading, you don’t have to learn all the names of the letters first, nor do you have to memorize their related sounds, nor do you have to be able to put the letters in ABC order, etc. Those traditional steps, including sounding out, memorizing blends, etc., are SO familiar that we feel if we don't teach them, we will fail our children. The best way to teach a child to read is to get to the point immediately. I can attest to the amount of clutter that exists in our teaching day. One foreign concept to many adults is the fact that many children learn whole words more readily than they do the little pieces and parts of words.
Learn to distinguish between effective lessons and busy work. Back when I was in the classroom, much of what filled our day was busy work with minimal gains made by the children. You can tell which activities fall into this category because children will simply not be engaged. For instance, copying is usually a complete waste of time. It will make the child's hand tired and put the brain to sleep. Any activity that is effective and useful and that will engage the child is going to be one in which they have to figure something out, have to invent something, have to think! If they are engaged, they are learning!
Use images everywhere you can. Images are magical for many children who don't memorize and remember. Try it for yourself. Ask someone to do you a favor. Have them drive to a street nearby and snap a picture of something such as an interesting house, or a weird building, or anything that has defining characteristics. Then have them come back to you and first describe verbally what they saw. When they have finished, have them show you the picture they took of that very interesting object. Which is most effective at getting across the reality of the object so you can see it in your mind, the oral description or the photo?
Use a body motion to help remember. When I have trouble remembering a phone number (which is always), I know to "dial it" on a keypad. While I “dial,” I notice the shape of what I dialed, and I store up that visual pattern in the muscles of my body. Every child who is good with some physical activity is going to benefit from a physical movement to accompany learning. And I don't just mean bouncing, I mean a movement that reflects what they are learning. When counting by two's, for instance, have children march in a line but lean over heavily on each even number. Their bodies will remember the even numbers as they hear their mouths say the even numbers at the same time.
Relate the learning to a real-life experience. When learning to tell time or count money, do it throughout the day, not at a desk with pencil and paper. Measurement is best learned when the child is creating something very interesting and needs to measure component parts.
Have children figure out things for themselves. With any science lesson, the more hands-on and real the lessons are, the better. Anything a child can just cut out and paste is marginal at best. Avoid time fillers. Anything a child investigates and then makes or writes or puts into action that they must figure out is going to be valuable.
Find patterns and likenesses in all you teach because that is what the brain loves. There is beauty in patterns, and nature is full of them. Music is made of patterns, and math is as well. I have seen children come to life when they saw the patterns in multiplication tables, for example. Unrelated details are hard to do anything with.
Don't just tell, show. I would love to have a nickel for every time I've heard a teacher complain, "I already told you that more than once." Hmmm. Could it be that telling is not effective? Show them. Show them examples, show them how you do it (modeling), show them what a good outcome is. Remember, "Don't tell me. Show me!"
Keep lessons as short and effective as you can. Stop the minute the child is tired or restless. Of course, I don't mean ten minutes into the school day! I do mean, however, that when your child begins to wiggle or be restless, check the activity or lesson you are doing for interest level. If you can inject some mystery into it, some novelty, do it! But if you follow step one and get rid of the clutter and stick to the meat and potatoes of schoolwork, you might just find that your daily work, the essential part, can be accomplished in a couple of hours in the day.
Don't, oh please don't, keep on doing what you see doesn't work. What the child needs is not more repetition, but instead a radically different approach. A good prompt for ourselves is to notice when something doesn't work, and not repeat the same thing again. Remember, we are going to abandon the notion that the child is incapable and we will instead change what we are doing!