Children love to learn. Learning is as natural as breathing to them—they absorb every single thing that happens. They learn through play, they learn from the behavior of the children and adults around them, they learn from their own experiments. By all rights, going to school, with its new experiences, many children, and opportunities to master powerful skills like reading and math, should be exciting and fun for them.
In order to learn well, our children need to feel safe and wanted
Children can learn only when this bottom line condition of feeling welcome and appreciated is met. At school, they need to know that their teachers like them and think they're special. They need to know that they won't be bullied or made fun of on the playground or in the hallways. They need encouragement, high expectations, and a good deal of fun.
Play, which is the language and work of young children, is still deeply important to children of school age. The more they are allowed to play in their learning activities, the faster they absorb information and new skills. At home, children need kindness, affection, and some measure of one-on-one time with their parents, even if it’s as little as a five-minute snuggle before going to sleep every night.
For schools to foster learning, and for parents to support their children, we grown-ups need to see that the emotional needs of children are met both at home and in the schools.
Here are some specific ways to help children feel loved at home, and understood and respected at school, so their minds are clear enough to learn.
- Children need large amounts of physical affection and closeness. Closeness fuels their confidence and frees their minds of worries about whether or not they're OK. If they're unsure about whether they're OK, they can't concentrate on learning.
- Children learn best through play and hands-on activities. The best teacher is experience, experience, experience! We need classrooms in which children are doing things together, experimenting, and teaching each other what they've learned. In particular, free play without competition or pre-set rules is a great builder of children's intellect, imagination, and confidence. Jumping on the beds at home, chasing around the house, and wrestling and pillow fights (the children win, of course) are the kinds of personal, physical play that lift children's spirits and create enough fun that they can manage to stay hopeful even when days at school aren't inspiring. If life feels like drudgery, learning won't take place. So free play is vital. It keeps your child's spark of hope and interest alive.
- Children need the freedom to make mistakes and ask questions without fear of shame or belittlement. Mistakes and “failures” teach as effectively as successes, as long as a child continues to be respected.
- Children's keen sense of justice demands that they and others be treated thoughtfully and fairly. Fairness, to children, means limits but not anger, boundaries but not belittlement, facing problems but not attacking people for having problems.
When learning problems arise, listen
When a child isn't able to concentrate or to learn, there's usually an emotional issue that blocks his progress. It feels bad on the inside when you can't think. It feels scary on the inside when you can't do what's expected of you, and you don't know why or what to do about it. This is the position children are in when they can't write a story, can't memorize their times tables, or can't sit down to their homework. They feel upset, and often scared. They also feel alone.
When we parents see our child caught in upset around learning, it's usually infuriating. Our child's problems make us feel tired and worn. Our thoughts are something like, “By now, he should be able to do school work on his own! Why do I have to get into it?” We badly want our child's problems to go away so we can get a little peace.
What helps immensely is something we've always been taught to avoid at all costs. If you can sit close by while your child has a good cry about school, or a tantrum about not wanting to do homework, your child will do the work of draining some of the bad feelings that have paralyzed him.
Emotional release helps children focus their attention and regain their ability to be hopeful about learning. Your child won't sound reasonable while he cries or rages. He'll believe very strongly in the terrible feelings he's having. But surprisingly, the crying and the chance to make sure you know how bad it feels inside has a deeply healing effect. So try to keep from arguing and reasoning with him, and stay close while he “cleans the skeletons out of the closet” with his tears and his bleak or angry thoughts. He'll finish. The longer he has been able to cry, the more improvement you will see in his ability to concentrate and to believe in himself.
Children want their parents to be the ones to listen
Schools are not set up to help children with the tensions that keep them from learning and getting along. This is a job we parents need to do. It's a very hard job, one that was never done for us. It feels “all wrong” to allow a child to cry on and on without fixing anything, without sending him to his room or insisting that he pulls himself together.
But listen. Listening heals. Listen your way through a big cry or tantrum once, without trying to “fix” your child’s feelings or solve the problem, and you'll see how well it works to clear your child's mind and restore his sense of closeness to you.
Assisting our children, supporting their schools
The huge need children have for one-on-one attention while they learn is natural. It's the school environment, where so many children need to compete for the attention of just one adult, that's not natural. Children's needs feel bothersome to parents and to teachers, not because the children are out of line, but because our society is out of line.
Policymakers and citizens haven't yet decided to give young children enough adult attention in school, and parents enough support at home, to meet the natural human needs for support and attention. When schools are genuinely supportive to children, we'll look back at present class sizes, at the lack of support for teachers, and at the lack of services for children experiencing difficulties in learning, and think of conditions in the early twenty first century as primitive indeed.
Because of these conditions, almost every child will experience some difficult times in school. And almost every parent feels upset, helpless, and/or angry when these troubles surface. Our strong love for our children and our frustration with a society that doesn't offer much support to its young people makes it hard to think clearly when our children are having a hard time. There are a few guiding principles that many people find helpful when they hit a hard patch.
- It doesn't help to blame your child, yourself, or the teacher for the difficulty. Blame wastes energy and makes others feel worse than they already do. Because blame spreads bad feelings, it gets in the way of the fresh thinking and cooperation you'll need in order to build solutions. You aren't to blame. You're working as hard as you know how that this difficult job of parenting. Your child isn't to blame. He's doing the best he can, and is carrying burdens he hasn't told you about yet, or doesn't know how to shed yet. The teacher is not to blame. No matter who has made mistakes, the heart of the matter is the lack of support and assistance for everyone involved.
- You, your child, and your child's teacher are all stressed because learning conditions aren't optimal. In most schools, human caring and teaching expertise is spread far too thin. Constructive action means to look for people's strengths, call on their good intentions, and perhaps to look for additional help.
- First, listen to your child about the difficulty. He's feeling hurt and upset, and he can't solve the problem in that state. See if you can be warm and positive enough to help him have a big cry or a tantrum. Children can often work through their feelings of victimization and come up with their own solutions to troubles at school, if they have the chance to offload the feelings in big, hard cries at home.
- Let your child be in charge of the solutions. After your child has shed big feelings of upset, and after you've spent some time just being close to him without trying to solve the problem, ask him what he wants to do. Listen carefully. There may be a role you can play in advocating for him with the teacher or helping him talk with his friends. But don't assume that because he brought his feelings to you, that he wants you to take charge of the situation. Many times, children can think of how they want to take charge after one or several good cries.
- If he wants you to approach a teacher or other students, listen well before you attempt to find solutions. A teacher, principal, or student needs to have their side of the story heard before they will be able to change a viewpoint or cooperate toward a fresh solution. If things aren't working well, they feel badly about it, even if they're acting like they don't. Fresh, workable behavior comes only from a mind that's been freed a bit from its troubles by a good listener, a listener who cares about all the parties involved. Your thoughts are important, and working toward a solution is important. But listening well to the others involved is as vital as tilling hard-packed soil before you attempt to plant a new seed.
- Problem solving goes better if parents find a listener, too. When our children meet with unfairness, we want to storm and rage until the threat to them is gone. Someone listening to how angry or disappointed or exhausted we feel freshens our communication with our children, their friends, and their teachers. It helps us take a positive tack if and when we intervene.
In short, when our children meet trouble, we feel troubled too. To be good allies and problem solvers, we need someone to listen to us, perhaps again and again, to how we feel and to the things we've tried. Our problem-solving effectiveness is one hundred percent improved if we decide to find a listener and let them hear our fears and our frustrations before we try to help.
How listening can work
My daughter was given a month to learn all the states and their capitals. I offered to help her learn groups of about six states at a time. After she memorized the first six she felt she couldn't possibly learn all the states, and she had a huge cry. I listened. Then she proceeded to learn the second set of six states and capitals, but again she felt that this was too much for her. She had another long cry. I stayed close. She kept saying, “I'll never learn this. I just can't do it.” She also got mad at me for trying to help, and cried about my “interference.”
I was somewhat confused by this, and wondered if indeed I had gotten too involved in this assignment. In a few days, she again felt hopeless about learning them all, and had a third big cry. Each cry she had went on for half-an-hour or more. She felt she could never do the assignment, and expressed frustration and anger at me, at the assignment, and at the world. I kept listening to her and wondering how this was going to turn out.
After the third cry, everything changed. She learned the next sets of states quickly and easily. She took on a set of eighteen states and capitals, and did them all at once. Three-days before the test, she asked me to quiz her on them, and she knew them all! She was ecstatic, and I think she was amazed that she had done something that she had been sure she never could do. She was so proud of herself. The day before the test, she was completely confident that she would get 100%, and she was actually looking forward to the test. She usually showed a lot of anxiety around tests, so I'd never seen her like this before. After the test was over, she said she was sad that it was over, and she told me that she wished she could do it again.
She has referred to it again and again as one of the major learning feats of her life, and she has thanked me profusely for my help with the project, saying that she never could have done it without me. It was great to see this whole process work.