Observations on How [Child] Learns

Written for:
11-year-old girl
Adopted from Russian orphanage at age 4.5
Learning/language delays
Mainstream class two years behind age group
Instructional aide
Start of school year
By Terri Mauro

Four Observations About How [Child] Has Learned

1. She has learned at pretty much the same pace whether she’s had a lot of help or a little help. She has always made forward progress in whatever program she was in, and that progress has been remarkably steady. There were no great leaps forward when she was in a self-contained class with intensive help for her learning problems, and no great falls back when she was in a mainstream class with little individualized assistance. Programs we have pursued to try to accelerate her abilities in reading comprehension and language acquisition have also had very minor effect. She learns at the rate she learns, and considering her background and challenges, I’d say she’s doing a pretty good job for herself. All things being equal, then, I’d prefer she get as little help as possible.

2. She is motivated — but not necessarily to learn. She is motivated to please grown-ups. She is motivated to keep up with what her classmates are doing. I do not believe she is motivated to learn a specific lesson specifically for the sake of learning it. It may seem that way sometimes, but I think it is more a case of her reflecting the enthusiasm and excitement of the person who is working with her. It may take a while of working with her to realize this. But it is absolutely essential to understand this about her, because it means that she will only work as hard as we expect her too. If we are willing to settle for less, she will be only too happy to provide it. On the other hand, if we challenge her, she will make an effort. She may not be able to consistently succeed at it, but she will be willing to try.

3. She has some very marked strengths which can provide her with positive classroom experiences. These include spelling, penmanship, math facts, rote memorization, and organization. Last year, her teacher mentioned that [child]'s classmates were impressed by her ability to come up with multiplication facts quickly. Many children have remarked on her good handwriting, and more than once we have had phone calls from kids wanting to know about the homework because they know [child] always has it written down and has it done. I believe it has helped her socially to be able to show mastery in some areas, and it also helps her self-confidence to be reminded, when struggling with tasks that are hard for her, that there are indeed things she does very well (and other kids don’t). We talk a lot about everybody having strengths and weaknesses.

4. Her weaknesses are very clearly tied to language. Anything having to do with getting knowledge out of language or showing knowledge through language will be difficult for her, and that includes reading comprehension in all subjects, math story problems, writing, and anything abstract. It is important to note that although she has very obvious and consistent struggles in these areas, she is making progress. She is doing more difficult work in all these areas than she was able to do a year ago. She can, from time to time, do quite decently in them. When she does most poorly, I think, is when there is a double degree of difficulty: She has to not only get the meaning from the lesson, but then must also get the meaning from an obscurely worded question. This will, of course, happen more frequently as she goes forward in school; however, I have hopes that her abilities will follow along, always somewhat behind but allowing for consistent improvement.

Five Things to Keep in Mind About [Child]

1. She likes to know what to do. And she is at her most insecure when she does not. I believe this is a legacy of her 4.5 years in an orphanage, when she never had to make a single decision on her own. Adults always made it clear what she was to do in any situation. She loves routine. She will be the child in any classroom who always knows what specials come on which days, who’s getting pulled out for what when, what book to have out for what subject, and what the usual way of doing things is. She will know these things better than anybody else, and yet she will still ask, just to make sure, just to tap that touchstone. And the same thing is true of her schoolwork. She will want to know exactly what to do. She will not want to make any mistakes. If there is an adult available to tell her what to do, she will seek to get as many details and as much help as possible. She may in fact know exactly what to do, but if she can get someone to tell her, she will. We can help her by directing her to trust her own interpretation of things; when she asks, “What should I do?” say, “What do you think?”

2. Her self-esteem is fine, thanks. Unlike many children in special education or with learning disabilities, [child] has not had the experience of failure. She started right in with self-contained special-ed in preschool, rather than failing in a mainstream program and being placed in self-contained. Her experience in mainstream classrooms has been positive. The children have been accepting, the teachers have liked her, and while she has sometimes described the work to me as hard or boring, she has never seemed to feel overwhelmed by it. Consequently, I think we need to interpret her periodic expressions of frustration or reactions to stress not as potential crises of self-esteem but as, well, expressions of frustration or reactions to stress. She may, on occasion, pretend to bop her head, roll her eyes, sigh, call herself stupid, or even tear up. I have been known to do these things when confronted by a hard problem or a poor response of my own. I’ll bet most of the people working with [child] have, too. I honestly do not think, in [child]’s case, it is anything more than that. She does not hold things in, and that is good. Reassure her, point out her strengths, reaffirm your patience, and move on. It is not a signal to back off, or make things easy, or head off any possibility of failure.

3. Always watch your language. It is impossible to overstate the degree to which [child]’s language delays impact on her learning abilities. There’s a phenomenon observed in language acquisition called subtractive bilingualism, by which a child learning a second language completely loses her first language before gaining any mastery in the second. This is what generally happens with children adopted from foreign countries, and it’s what happened with [child]. Instead of building a second language on top of the firm foundation of a first language still being spoken in the home, which is the case with most ESL kids, foreign adoptees generally lose that foundation altogether, and often, because of early deprivation, didn’t have much of a foundation to begin with. As a result, these kids are showing major delays in the acquisition of language as a basic communication tool, and an even more extended delay in the ability to use language as a tool of academic learning. It will likely take well more than seven years for her to achieve full mastery in this, although I believe that one day she may be able to do it. Until then, if [child] doesn’t understand something, it is not necessarily because she does not understand the underlying concept, but because she does not understand the language being used to convey that information, or to elicit it from her. I've had some success with rephrasing things; using examples out of her own experience; or drawing a diagram or chart to make abstract things more concrete. I have had no luck with hammering the same language home again and again.

4. She already has one enormous modification in place. If we were trying to help [child] survive in a sixth-grade classroom with children her own age, I would be writing a very different letter. But she is in a fourth-grade classroom, two years back, and this should to some degree compensate for her delays. Testing has shown her to be in the general vicinity of this age level in most areas. I have no desire for her ever to work at her own age level, but I do think that she can work at this one, with passing if not spectacular grades, without further modifications. There are certainly things that can be done to increase her strengths and mitigate her weaknesses, but I want to know that when she gets a grade, she has earned it herself, and that she has had as much exposure to and opportunity to learn every element of the fourth-grade curriculum as any other student. I would like us to think of her as a fourth-grade student who is keeping her head above water, and not as a sixth-grade student who can barely do fourth-grade work.

5. She is a tough kid. And a sweetheart, absolutely, and a child you want to keep happy so you can keep seeing that smile. It may seem at times that she needs to be protected or else she will fall apart. But please, if you remember nothing else, remember this about her: This is a child who at age 4.5, left everything that was familiar to her and went with strangers, in three vehicles she had never ridden in before (car, train, plane), to a place she had never seen, to live in something called a family which was completely foreign to her, to cope with a language she could not understand, food she’d never eaten, sights and sounds and experiences that were more unfamiliar to her than we can possibly imagine. And she did all this with a smile on her face, and never looked back. She has adjusted remarkably well. She and I talk often about how strong she is: how everyone thought she was going to die when she was a baby, but she made it through and grew into this beautiful, tall, strong, healthy girl; how she survived a transition more severe than any her classmates have even imagined going through, and has gone on to do so well for herself. In light of what she has already thrived through, I don’t believe that any amount of challenge in the classroom is going to “destroy” her, as one child-study-team member put it in the past. She is much, much tougher than she looks. Use that.

Four Concerns About How Much Help Is Too Much

1. It is absolutely possible to make things harder for [child] by trying to make them easier. It all goes back to that language thing: If she can’t make sense of the language you’re using to explain something, you are adding degrees of difficulty. I notice this all the time in the math homework, when the text tries to teach “tricks” to do math more easily. [Child] will be able to do the math just fine without the trick, but the language used to explain the trick gets her so tied up in knots she will not have the first clue how to proceed. I thought of this when [the aide] worried about [child]’s ability to divide because she didn’t know how to put 2 into 4. Now, I can guarantee that if you wrote 4 divided by 2 with the standard symbols, [child] could do that problem. But the language of asking for that result distracted her. Sometimes this difficulty with the language of help makes her appear to be more needy than she actually is. And then more help, more layers of language, will be piled on. And the estimation of [child]’s ability will go down with each layer. I have seen this cycle before. I do not want to see it again.

2. Help shifts [child]’s focus. When someone sits down to help [child] answer a question, her focus may shift from finding the answer to the question to finding the answer the grown-up wants her to find. She wants to please, and so she starts throwing out answers. These are often wildly, obviously wrong. Again, this does not necessarily mean she doesn’t know the answer or cannot do the work; it means she is no longer trying to solve a problem with a specific answer that can be figured out, but is trying to read your mind. The best method I have found is to let her do the work, and then go back and discuss specific wrong answers with her. Working with her from the start often results in guesswork or helplessness.

3. Help gives too much away. I have no problem with [child] getting help that strengthens her skills and overall ability so that she can do the same work as everyone else. I also feel that that kind of help is very hard to give. It is much easier to give help that gets her through particular assignments and tests by essentially giving her the answers. I freely admit that when helping her with her homework, I am more than likely to give the second kind of help. That help is not useless; she doesn’t learn anything by getting answers wrong. But it’s not what she really needs, and I would like to hope that educators will know better ways to help than I. At any rate, I would rather she have a level playing field, with normal expectations, at school, and have us adjust our expectations at home. At this point, what I expect is an A on spelling tests; C or better on concrete math and vocabulary tests; D or better on things that involve reading comprehension and writing. I expect her to do better with multiple choice and math facts than with written answers. By the time we go through her test folder, I have a pretty good idea of what she knows, and if she doesn’t show that on the test we talk about it. But [child] generally knows what I’m expecting, and has her feelings of success and failure based on that. If at the same time less is being expected of her in the classroom, if the aide is helping her to get an A when she would have gotten a C on her own, then I have to inflate my grade expectations. But I’m not sure how that helps her.

4. At some point, there will be no help. We have to foster independence in [child] if she is going to have any sort of normal life. She is happy to have help, and will take as much of it as she can get, and will swear she needs it. But fostering her dependence does not help her in the long run. Everything we do, every step of the way, has to be with the goal of letting her do it herself. She will always have to deal with confusion and things she doesn’t understand; I want her to have an arsenal of ways to deal with that that do not all involve somebody helping her.

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