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First grade, all over again May 27, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, math, younger son.
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Some of you know that we ended up switching the younger boy to a new school mid-year.  We weren’t sure how the new arrangement would work out, so we also decided to enroll him in EPGY’s math program.  I really like program, and one reason is that they introduce basic algebra very early on.  He is already comfortable with using variables, and understands some basic concepts, like substitution.  He was doing great until a couple days ago.  Then we encountered sum and difference equations.

a+b=10

ab=0

Actually, this particular example was fairly easy for him.  You know that if the difference is zero, the values of a and b have to be the same.  The problem is when you end up with a difference equation that looks like this:

ab=4

That seemed to lose him fairly quickly.  After struggling with it for a while, I decided it was time to use some manipulatives.

(Note to self: Do not use chocolate chips as manipulatives.  If it’s hot, they’ll melt.  And regardless of the temperature, the kid will be more interested in eating them than doing math with them.)

I explained that ab=4 is the same as saying that a has 4 more chocolate chips than b.  First we have to take away the extra four chocolate chips, and then a and b will share the remaining chocolate chips equally.  So, in this case, they will share six chocolate chips equally, meaning a will end up with 7 and b will have 3.

He seemed to understand.  He was able to solve several examples using the chocolate chips, but when we went back to doing the problems on the computer, he seemed lost.  He couldn’t do them, and then pretty soon, he wouldn’t do them.  I was flummoxed because he obviously understood how to do it a few moments before.

My first reaction was to get frustrated, and soon I was almost angry.  He wasn’t even trying!

It was at that point I realized exactly what had been going on at his old school.  The kid is a serious perfectionist, and being a perfectionist, his instinct is to avoid things he can’t do very easily.  He’s afraid that if he can’t do them easily, he will get them wrong.  And getting things wrong is not an option to a perfectionist. (Before you say what a horrible parent I am for turning my child into a perfectionist, please note that he’s been like this since he was capable of doing *anything* and that it’s extremely common in gifted children because they are not used to things being challenging.)

I realized I needed to change my tactics quickly.  I immediately told him that I knew it was hard to do these problems, but that if he tried, I was sure he’d do a good job at them.  I went from frustrated to empathetic in the drop of the hat.  He asked if I would help him if he got stuck, and I promised I would.

And then, suddenly, he could do the problems with no help at all.

In education, this sort of practice is called “emotional scaffolding”: the idea that influencing emotions is as much a part of learning as acquiring knowledge, and for students to learn well, they may need emotional support from their teachers as well as instruction.  When I had tried to talk to the teacher at younger boy’s old school about using emotional scaffolding in the classroom, her response was that she was “not a special ed teacher”.  I was surprised because, to me, addressing the emotional component of learning is just as important as the content.  If you have a kid who is easily intimidated by learning, then it only makes sense they may need more pep talks than the average kid.  Making a kid comfortable with learning is most definitely not something confined to special ed teachers – or at least it shouldn’t be.

On the flip side, if you don’t understand the root of the behavior, it is probably very easy to assume that the child doesn’t understand the material.  Addressing the emotional component of learning means you need to have a good handle on what makes a child tick – something nearly impossible when you’re dealing with 25 or 30 kids.

I think part of the reason that the younger boy is doing so well in his new classroom is that 1) we have identified the emotional issues causing the problem and 2) he had a teacher who was very willing and able to work with him and provide that emotional scaffolding.  As a result, he went from having completely shut down to now working at advanced levels in all of his curriculum.

One issue in dealing with perfectionism, however, is making sure that the child is continually challenged enough to frustrate them a little, but not so much that they are bound to fail.  They need to learn that working or getting help is a better way to deal with challenges than simply shutting down.  And in order to be willing to confront those challenges, teachers need to be willing to both mentally challenge a child while at the same time providing emotional support.

What I saw the past few days confirmed what I thought had happened – the teacher at the old school was willing to provide the challenge, but not willing to provide any emotional support.  The teacher at the new school was able to do both.  For that, he will forever have my gratitude.

It is also a reminder to me that teaching material alone is not enough: the best teachers also work to keep their students motivated and interested.

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