What to Say When Your Child Struggles with Learning Something New | Do Say Give

What to Say When Your Child Struggles with Learning Something New

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Leighanne Scheuermann from Written and Bound is joining us today to encourage both parents and students. Leighanne is a reading and learning specialist based in Dallas, Texas providing so many great online resources for parents.

As a reading and learning specialist, the first thing that I do when I start working with a student is to focus on the child’s self-esteem. I have a background in social work, so I love this part of my job. Although, I will admit that when I became a parent myself, I wanted to write a letter to every family I had ever worked with to say, “I get it now. Please give yourself some grace.” So, as you work with your child this year, remember to have fun, anticipate frustrations, laugh, and know that the goal is not to eliminate the tantrums but to be there through them. As we enter another school year and for some, a year of distance learning, here are a few things I’ve learned to “do and say” with my children and students to boost their self-image through their academics.

Mirror and model

When kids struggle with learning and have tantrums or big feelings, we usually have a sense of urgency or a fight or flight mode to make the feelings go away. In my first years of teaching, I would want to shift gears quickly during a tantrum and say, “Ok, let’s move on. Let’s try math and we will come back to reading.” While distraction can sometimes work, mirroring a child’s feelings is often more productive long-term.

To help the child feel seen and heard, we name their feelings for them. In the book, The Whole Brain Child, the authors call this strategy ‘name it to tame it.’ You might say, “You feel so angry right now,” or “Reading isn’t fun at all right now, is it?” By allowing our children to feel seen, they are more likely to move on or continue working. Rather, if they break down and the tantrum continues, it’s harder to bring them back, and the work goes incomplete.

When I ask parents to model their own learning, they often feel pressure to be avid readers or make time that they don’t have. Yet, parents are always learning new things, reading articles, and completing difficult tasks at work, and home. By sharing this experience with your child, even just thinking aloud while doing a new task or cooking, they can see your process. You might say, “Oh, I put in the wrong amount of salt. Oh, well. I bet it will taste good. I’m learning.” You might also just grab a pen and make lists or journal every once in a while, to model writing, rather than only taking notes on your phone.

Identify their learning style and build on their strengths

Each child has a unique learning style. Once we can tap into their strengths, we can find ways to make learning easier. If you have a child who loves moving and running, then take a ball outside and bounce it while practicing their spelling. Try phonics hopscotch. One bounce or jump for each letter might get more smiles than flashcards. If your child is a visual learner, they might want to be doodling, or draw pictures while learning. A quiz on my website helps you identify your child’s learning style and build on their strengths.

Connect and celebrate

In addition to learning styles, I still love the 90s idea of children’s love languages. I read somewhere that kids spell love t-i-m-e. Whether you are helping with homework this year, homeschooling, or encountering your child’s learning difference, make sure to still read to them at bedtime and try not to ask them to read to you during this time if it causes frustration. It’s a sacred space to connect over stories rather than academic progress. If you and your child connect over riding bikes together or having one-on-one dates, make sure that this time doesn’t go by the wayside and even consider increasing it if they are struggling with learning. They might open up about their struggles and it might even allow them to come up with their own solutions. You can also consider playing literacy-based games rather than quizzing them with flashcards.

I don’t want my kids to become so reliant on rewards that they refuse to practice without them, but every kid needs a jumpstart. If you’ve started a new goal, hobby, or workout regime, you probably wanted to get inspired by new gardening tools or workout clothes. When you reached a goal, you probably celebrated. Praise your child’s effort and hard work. Show them that you see how hard they are working. Rather than rewarding with quality time, keep that a staple and reward them with a toy from the dollar spot or picking the movie for family movie night. The key to making these celebrations remain motivating is the keep the goal specific and the timeline short. If the reward comes at the end of the month after 30 days of reading remediation, they will likely run out of steam. So, celebrate small wins.

Laughter is the best medicine

I learned a trick from the book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk to lighten the mood. The authors describe granting a child their wishes through fantasy. If your child says, “Ugh, I hate doing homework,” you might say, “I bet you wish the kids made dinner and the parents did homework.” If your child says I hate math, I wish numbers and coins would go away, and you might say, “I bet you wish there were just no coins and the world would run on paying in cereal and ice cream.” This usually provides a laugh and then sends them into a spiral of thinking of all the fun ways they could pay people in ice cream rather than their frustrations around homework.

Every child is unique. Each child will develop in his or her way and in their own time. By remaining connected, not always getting every conversation right, but trying to lessen the power struggles, we can find more ways to build their self-image along and their academic skills.

Leighanne is a reading and learning specialist in Dallas, offering one-on-one tutoring. She shares simple strategies that apply the science of learning to playful solutions for parents at WrittenandBound.com. She is the creator of Growing Confident Readers, an online literacy development course for parents. Her work is featured in The New York Times, Rewire and NBC News.


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