Dear Mom and Dad,
I think the reason I struggle in school is I have no motivation, no goal, nothing that tells me to keep going. Some kids have legitimate reasons for their school struggles – not me. I am just lazy and it is 100% my responsibility to dig myself out of this academic hole I have created. If I don’t improve you should pull me out of sports and eliminate all the things that mean a lot to me because I don’t deserve them.
I love you
-7th grader, March 2010
When students misunderstand in school and are misunderstood by adults, things frequently get tense –inside the student and also between the student and parents and/or teachers. Inside them it can feel confusing, frustrating, or discouraging. Eventually, these feelings often lead to self-prosecution (e.g. I’m so stupid, I just can’t do it, etc.) Between the adults and students tensions may quickly increase as “nothing seems to work” and parents and teachers display ever-increasing frustration and discouragement.
How does this happen? Why? Reasons for student misunderstanding and adult misunderstanding of their misunderstanding are multiple. One possibility to consider is that the adults play out their autobiography into the life of the child. What does that mean? Without realizing it, we adults assume the student is us. So the automatic, default reason we lean on to explain the student’s misunderstanding or struggle in school is often the reason we (adults) might have struggled ourselves. This autobiography mindset often misses the mark, leading to misinterpretation. For example, if a parent had no trouble in school, they may interpret their child’s struggle as laziness. So what might this misunderstanding sound like around the home front? How about – “I know you are smart… I know you can do this,” or “You need to try harder – get motivated.” Yikes.
This process can heighten and tighten leading to a “triple whammy” for the student.
Whammy #1 – The student is struggling in school, knows it, and recognizes that they are disappointing the very people s/he is trying to please.
Whammy #2 – If the adults cannot identify a reason based on their own experience for why their student is struggling, they will often ask the student (i.e. “why can’t you just do this?”). The average child does not know why they are struggling, and the fact that the adults in their life do not have an explanation can be bewildering or increase their shame and anxiety. In a sense, they have the right to ask, “Why are you asking ME? I’m the twelve year old here!”
Whammy #3 – The default reason everyone else is giving for a students’ misunderstanding or struggles in school is because they “don’t care… aren’t trying… aren’t motivated.” After a while, the student may even believe the misunderstandings of the adults in their life.
So, what to do? A few things to consider:
- Parents can remain open to a variety of explanations/interpretations for the student’s struggles. One particularly helpful book is A Mind at a Time by Mel Levine, M.D.
- Parents can help their student by emotionally “shock absorbing” the situation. Amidst their struggle of misunderstanding, the student really needs the adults in their lives to really behave as adults — to absorb some of the emotion flying around by remaining calm — easy to say, not so easy to do.
- Adults can help the student change their thinking or talking from “I can’t understand/do __________” to “I haven’t understood/done ___________yet.”
- Seek further comprehensive evaluation from CLC Network as a foundation for accurately understanding their misunderstanding, getting adults and the student on the same page and putting a specific plan in place which includes steps for parents, teachers and the student.
Ultimately, misunderstanding a student’s misunderstanding is understandable. And once we realize this, we can move forward to understanding our students’ struggles, to using that understanding to equip rather than guilt, and to making education meaningful and achievable for our kids.
Doug Bouman is Director of Evaluation Services at CLC Network, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and Licensed Masters Social Worker