I recently received a phone call from a parent; she was confused and concerned regarding a shift in her 10-year-old son’s approach to his schoolwork. “Jason has always loved school,” she began, “but last year he just kind of…gave up. He’s so bright and he really wants to do well—I don’t know what happened.”
This, unfortunately, is a common occurrence in the world of tutoring. Many children begin their academic careers with passion and promise, only to show signs of hesitancy and even apathy as they near the end of elementary school. Parents are left wondering, “What happened?”
Did the work get harder? Did the teachers get worse? Did distractions take over? Maybe. What we’ve found is that most children who experience a shift like this are not reacting to academic or social obstacles. They’re responding to fear.
A Late-Elementary Curriculum Shift
Towards the end of elementary school, curriculums often transition from concrete to conceptual. This requires children to establish abstract reasoning skills, which developmental psychologist Jean Piaget asserts is the final stage of development. This can be a jarring transformation for many children (as can most experiences of growth), not because the work is necessarily difficult, but simply because it’s scary. But curriculums always change.
What are kids so afraid of? They are afraid to fail, and this fear of failure indirectly stifles learning. All forms of learning require an element of discomfort, as we must leave a part of ourselves behind in attempts to move forward. And yet the notion of moving forward and achieving academic success, even on a small scale, is not the most important element for a child at this age. It’s the attempt that matters most. This fear of failure doesn’t ultimately inhibit a child’s access to knowledge, but instead paralyzes his innate ability to try.
Accepting and Acknowledging the Idea of Failure
In order to try, either on a micro or macro level, we must accept and acknowledge potential failure. This is often a novel experience for children, particularly those who initially acclimated themselves to activities such as counting, reading, and verbalization somewhat intuitively. The acquisition of scholastic fundamentals can actually be enjoyable for kids, whereas the shift to abstract reasoning, especially in contrast to their earlier memories of concrete learning, can be terrifying.
So what can we do? How do we prepare children to confront these challenges head-on, and what can we do to enhance their abilities to succeed when faced with such inevitable obstacles? In order for students to feel safe enough to try, and possibly fail, parents can aim to create an atmosphere of acceptance, emphasizing the attempt as an accomplishment.
Consistent Effort Should Be the Expectation
The true feat for a child is to wager her newly achieved sense of confidence, and put her fragile ego on the line, all in the name of learning. Parents, teachers, and caretakers should aim to accentuate the notion that the true triumph is in trying. Academic success, even on a momentary basis, is a product of struggle and nerve. Let us celebrate a child’s ability to lean into this discomfort as she attempts to learn, and free her from the fear of failure.
Learning is an active, symbiotic process, and the instructor of any lesson is as entrenched in the dynamic as the recipient of said lesson. The universal constructivist framework posed by Piaget addresses the individualistic complexities of each learner, and recognizes that there is a synthesis between the receptive mind and the world around it that must be considered.
Teaching is not batting practice, with a coach tossing a ball to an expecting batter. Education, ideally, is a delicate dance whose leader is indiscernible. It is an abstract painting that depicts tenor and topic simultaneously. It is a rainfall whose parachuting pearls of piddle merge with the awaiting Earth in a collision of purpose and design. The emotional experience of a child is just as relevant as the intellectual one, even in school. Success in the face of difficulty requires effort; effort is supported by trust; trust requires courage; and courage is the spirit that enables a person to face difficulty.
Self-Awareness Leads to Success
Many kids, as they reach their preteen years, will subconsciously decide that they prefer quitting to failure. Strengthening the muscles of patience and persistence at a young age is vital, particularly nowadays, during the age of Google, when the answer to every question is immediately available.
Before we can ever learn, we must first admit that there is something we do not know. The confession of this frailty requires a certain amount of meta-cognition and self-awareness. In order to thrive, children must be able to look favorably upon their inescapable limitations during these moments. Having the freedom to fail is empowering, as temporary defeats of the moment (trying/learning) can lead to longstanding triumphs in the future (comprehension/mastery).
All thought is symbolic, and emotions are but a vague representation of our inexact response to what we consider to be irrefutable reality. Our feelings can inform our thoughts, and vice versa, and the stimuli that inspire our feelings and thoughts are just as much a catalyst for these internal processes as they are a consequence of them. Children are a combination of these catalysts and consequences, and their ability to succeed in the face of novel academic challenges is predicated on the acceptance of the unpleasant emotions related to momentary confusion and potential failure.
The Solution Starts With You
In attempts to reach the impressionable mind of a child, we must practice self-awareness; there is no way to speak to another if first we cannot hear ourselves. If we expect a child to learn, we must also expect ourselves to be able to do the same. Becoming aware of who we are, and who we are not, is an ongoing process, but it almost always begins with accepting limitations, both our own and those of others. This way, we can help a child discover the courage necessary to enact growth and continue to put forth effort, instead of quitting due to a fear of failure.