“He still won’t read.”
The mother’s voice held disappointment and frustration. Her son struggles in school and was required by teachers to read every day over the summer, but hadn’t.
“I did read!” he protested, pouted. Hurt. “I read two whole books!”
“Only because we made you read!” She retorted and turned to me. “Every day is a new excuse. He’s too tired, the book is boring, it’s too hard, he’ll read later, he hates reading, it is stupid … He’ll do anything to avoid it.”
He stomped to the chair. Sat dejectedly. I patted his arm. “I’m glad you read two whole books,” I said. “Which ones?”
He brightened. Threw a “you see?!” look at his mom, and told me. We discussed what he liked about the stories, what he didn’t. What was hard, what wasn’t. We then went over a list of possible titles to follow.
I scheduled a time to speak with the mom. Her frustrations need venting, and she needs solutions, but we can talk about her disappointment without him needing to be present.
Every child is different but the complaint is not unique. Children and parents rarely battle over things that are fun and easy. It is the stuff that’s hard, confusing, boring, tedious, or appears to be of import to one side but feels less so to the other … where lines get drawn in the sand and stubborn frustration ensues.
Parents cajole. They threaten. They withhold privileges. They might use shame as ‘motivator’ by characterizing the child as lazy or ungrateful, oppositional, immature …
Not surprisingly, these tactics rarely work to ‘motivate’ learning. Nor do they solve whatever problem underlies a child’s reluctance to read: difficulty decoding, difficulty comprehending, delays in language and learning, issues with processing and retrieval, attention issues, stress and overwhelm …
A new school year is seen as opportunity for new ways of learning, new progress, new habits. Parents expect their children to enter school with gusto after a summer’s break and to give it their all. They often expect improvement of whatever issues may have been present the year prior. They verbally and otherwise communicate their expectation that the child prove himself or herself as mature and hardworking, and overcome whatever habits held them back.
A new grade and new beginning indeed offers much new opportunity for doing things differently. However, for that to happen we cannot fall back on failed methods or less-than-helpful habits. If children knew to do better on their own, they would do so already. No child wants to fail. No child enjoys the negative attention of reproach if they can get the positive attention of pride and praise.
“So what am I supposed to do?” the mother asked when we met. Exasperated.
“You did the best you could last year, and this year we’ll have to work together to do better,” I replied.
She was taken aback. She didn’t expect me to include her in the assessment of last year’s difficulties …
I did not mean blame, but I did mean accountability. Parents often do the best they know, but they are often overextended themselves, and some don’t quite follow through. They may want to follow suggestions but only do so sporadically, or expect the child to take full responsibility for remembering new tasks that they themselves forget … then feel pressed to blame or require … They may get discouraged at the first sign of difficulty (not unlike the child, maybe …) and not continue to work toward new habits when the implementation hits a bump or scheduling needs to be adjusted. They may balk at taking on more responsibility in a life that may already feel too stressful (again, not unlike the child…).
Parents deserve guidance. Shame does not work any better on adults than it does on children … Parents can use encouragement, not blame. Many can benefit from reminders and a pathway to setting new habits. It is not a weakness or poor parenting to make errors or get frustrated or not follow through. People aren’t perfect. We all need help in some areas.
For this boy, now in mid-grades, and often argumentative and quite fed up with “everything being too difficult”–new habits will (hopefully) include less fighting and more working together, less demand and more playfulness, less critic and more problem solving, less rigidity and more predictability, less shaming and more understanding.
- Setting a weekly schedule where one of the parents reads TO him every night or almost every night (on the benefits of reading check: How early? For how long? ).
- Separating the child’s own reading for decoding and school, from the parents reading TO him for literary exposure and pleasure.
- Taking care to not make a parent’s reading time an opportunity for ‘testing’ vocabulary or memory about the story (talking about the story is fabulous, quizzing is not).
- For books mandatory for school (but too difficult for the child’s reading level), using audio books as accompaniment to printed/electronic book. This helps the child follow the written word and assist him with decoding and comprehension.
- Placing reminders for reading-time and having a timer he can set to ensure he is reading long enough and can do this independently.
- Scheduling daily reading (for school and book logs) at a time that is realistic, rather than opportunistic.
- Providing assistance with homework and/or test preparation, so that the child is not left to manage what is too difficult on his own, and ends up too stressed and exhausted to optimally process information.
- Incorporating narrative into the day to day and offering modeling of narrative instead of requiring the child to constantly answer questions.
- Offering a model for making time for reading. Adults who read are more likely to have children who enjoy reading.
- Setting the child up for success, not failure: rather than focusing on a day he didn’t read or what he isn’t doing well yet, offer praise when he does do his reading without arguing; remind the child what worked before and what he can try to do again; offer solutions, not reprimand.
In this new school year, what old and less than desirable habits can your child replace with brand new opportunity?
What steps can you take to help?
If you need help to formulate a plan–it is okay to ask for it. That, too, is an opportunity.