Why can’t you be more like your sister,” my mother railed at my elder sibling. “Why can’t you get good grades like Jeri?”
It’s 40 years later, and my mother’s words still sting.
It happens my sister was a tennis prodigy, though she was no academic achiever. But this was before there was widespread understanding of quality parenting, unconditional love, and embracing your child for who he/she is. Nowadays there are better approaches. So once parents discover they have a non-academic child, how can they best do their job?
Jeffrey Kassinove, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist with practices in Manhattan and Nassau County, says it’s important to let children know we’re not all good at everything. It’s natural to have trouble with some subjects, to have strengths and weaknesses, including at school. One might excel at writing or history but struggle with math, while another might ace trigonometry but be unable to spell.
Give Feedback With Love
“Children are very sensitive,” says Dr. Kassinove. “If you say something negative, they will hold onto it.”
So give feedback, but show unconditional love when you do. Say: “I know you are having trouble with math, but that’s okay. You may need more time to do your math homework, and that’s fine. If we get a tutor, then you can spend extra time on math.”
Another form of positive feedback is to acknowledge the effort above the outcome. “Always show unconditional acceptance,” Dr. Kassinove urges, “because loving your child means loving his or her behaviors.”
Seek Out A 360° Assessment
Is your child having trouble with more than one subject? Has she become averse to school? Joshua Rosenthal, Psy.D., of Manhattan, explains how the downward spiral begins. “Research supports a correlation between learning disability, attention problems, and behavioral problems with not doing well, and a growing frustration with school,” he says. Sometimes a mood disorder, phobia, learning disability, or developmental disability — not intellectual capacity — is at the root of the matter.
“If you’re curious, it’s better to intervene than to wait,” he says. He recommends beginning at the school level, then seeking out a private evaluation.
“If your child presents as a reluctant learner, get a 360° assessment to learn why,” Dr. Rosenthal advises.
Provide a Structured Study Routine
Dr. Kassinove says “time on task” is likely the most important variable in academic success; some children need more time than others. Parents need to set the stage, and keep the environment right for study.
Dr. Rosenthal agrees that some children are more motivated and/or self-reliant than others, particularly with work habits and staying on task. Both propose a structured routine — something like this:
• After school, go directly to homework.
• Do some and get a reward (such as one-half hour of TV).
• Have dinner. Do some more homework.
“Make sure it’s a predictable schedule with slotted time,” Dr. Rosenthal says, “and build in reasonable incentives.”
With every child, and more specifically with the non-academic child, it is paramount to reward accomplishment. Praise instantly and often. Use charts, award money (typically $1), and grant privileges such as a movie or play date. These teach the relationship between effort and reward. Initial reinforcement also builds confidence and self esteem.
Focus on Positives and Build Small Successes
There are many ways to stay on the positive side. Emphasize the things you love in your child. Show interest in her social activities. What kind of music or sports does he like? Is she artistic?
Both psychologists recommend encouraging your child’s hobbies or participation in sports — it helps build skills and confidence. “Give kids the right topic and they can do very, very well.” Dr. Rosenthal says.
“Doing well at something will help them feel successful, and that will spill over into other areas of their life, like academics.”
Generate Enthusiasm for Learning
Children learn in different ways: some are visual (they have to see it on the board), some are auditory (think the two times two is four rhyme), and some are tactile (they need to touch to understand). Once you know what kind of learner your child is, it’s easier to reach him. You can also make learning fun by playing word games, doing puzzles, and reading together at home. Don’t forget to instill learning basics, like note taking, reviewing for tests, and study habits.
Don’t Overlook the Teacher Factor
When a child isn’t doing well one year, consider that it might be the teacher. What kind of teaching style does he exhibit? Is she primarily a lecturer? Is he respectful? Engaging?
Like parents, teachers need to recognize that each child is different, not just in learning, but with individual likes and dislikes. When teachers really get to know your child, they can usually entice them. Sharing stories about the teacher who made the difference for you when you were in school may help.
Will parenting a non-academic child be your greatest challenge? Perhaps. One thing to remember: your child will get frustrated along the way. Keep calm and don’t let yourself get frustrated as well.
For additional parent resources, visit www.nypsychological.com (Dr. Kassinove’s website) or www.drjoshuarosenthal.com (Dr. Rosenthal's website).