Middle School

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How to support a child falling behind in school

mother helping her son with school work

Diane Dupuy’s resume is impressive. The founder and artistic director of Famous People Players (a blacklight puppet theatre troupe whose performers are developmentally delayed adults), has earned honourary degrees from five universities, was the first Canadian to receive the Library of Congress Award and is a member of the Order of Canada. But her resume doesn’t include the fact that she failed Grade 3, failed Grade 6 and failed Grade 9 twice. “I was a totally disengaged student,” she says. “School didn’t work for me.”

But Diane had a creative drive that carried her through her teens and led her to form her puppet troupe. A gig in Las Vegas prompted Liberace to take notice and a career was born. “I think that school was too structured for me. I was bored and not challenged enough.”

When it’s time to attend school, most parents hope for a journey that is both challenging and positive for their children. The perfect scenario looks something like this:

  1. Child receives high marks on report cards.
  2. Parents accept glowing feedback about child from teachers.
  3. Child has loads of friends to play with at recess and after school.

While this ideal works seamlessly for some children, these days, more teachers and parents are learning to identify kids who don’t or can’t make the traditional school system work for them; these are children who fall into an academic grey zone of sorts.

Dr. Richard Selznick, an American psychologist and professor, coined the term “shut-down learner” to describe children who often thrive while doing hands-on and spatial-visual tasks (like building with Lego) but are slow to master core subjects such as reading and writing. Selznick recently wrote the book, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child. The root of the book’s message is: “Too often parents are told that things are fine, when in fact they are not. There are many children that fall in the ‘grey zone’, meaning their deficits are not severe enough to warrant service in the school. Even though they don’t warrant service, these children are still struggling.”

It’s the struggling that’s a major concern. Many shutdown learners will exhibit these characteristics:

  • Fundamental skill weakness with reading, writing and spelling
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Increased avoidance of school tasks such as homework
  • Little to no gratification from school
  • Increasing anger toward school
  • A sense of disconnection or discouragement, and little motivation (feeling shut down)

Solving these issues early on can lead to a more successful academic life and higher self-esteem. The connection between high self-esteem and good grades may seem obvious to some but the link is not clear for everyone. However, understanding this connection is vitally important.

According to a Hammill Institute on Disabilities’ 2007 study entitled Why Are Students with LD Depressed?, “Students with learning disabilities (LDs) are more likely to encounter frequent failure compared with typical students, and such effects are debilitating. The threat to self-worth feeds back to the person, attacking his or her feelings of competence and likability.”

Kathryn Burke is a speaker, author and advocate living and working in Edmonton. The mother of two children, one of whom has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and a learning disability, Burke created LD Experience, to share both her frustrations and resources with others.

Kathryn echoes the self-esteem/academic achievement correlation that’s buzzing around the “learning differences” community lately:”. We have to be concerned about what an [undiagnosed learning disability] does to self esteem and to mental health,” she says, adding that failure to succeed at school is among the triggers for depression and suicide in teens who are affected by substance abuse or mental illness, according to research from the Kelty Foundation, which studies teen suicide in Canada. “As a society we need to be aware of this and do our best to address the issue.”

Digging out of the grey zone

The first step is to determine if a learning disability (LD) or ADHD is at the root of these problems.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, one in 10 Canadians has an LD and they affect every person differently. Sometimes people have more than one learning disability. In addition, approximately one-third of people with an LD also have ADHD, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate, stay focused or manage their attention to specific tasks.

Some common LDs include:

  • Dyslexia (a specific learning disability that affects language) and phonemic/phonological awareness (the ability to recognize the distinct sounds in words)
  • Dysgraphia (a learning disability that affects writing abilities)
  • Dyscalculia (a learning disability involving math)

A child who is diagnosed with an LD by a registered psychologist or other specialist may be eligible to receive special help and/or resources including tutoring, computers, or additional time allotted for tasks. This generally occurs within the school and often at no charge to parents, but often not without relentless advocating from parents.

Beyond the traditional curriculum

What if your child doesn’t have an LD, but is shut-down anyway?

Often, the traditional school system’s curriculum does not “jive” with the brain of a shut-down learner. “In effect, they are resistant or immune to traditional education,” says Selznick in his book. “School represents a dead match between the demands of the curriculum and the neurological and personality makeup of the child.”

Regardless of the root cause, it’s important that shut-down learners are recognized and assisted as early as possible. Intervention and assistance can involve:

  • An altered teaching method
  • Incorporating more “high spatial” activities into the curriculum such as building, drawing, drama, workshops, hands-on learning, and field trips
  • Extra time to complete school work
  • Assistance with social skills and making friends

The squeaky wheel

Some doctors, parents and educators are reluctant to address learning differences, perhaps not wanting to slap labels on children when their problems could potentially resolve themselves. In The Shut-Down Learner, Selznick writes of one client meeting which presents a snapshot of the importance of recognizing and addressing learning issues. “It is puzzling that anyone is even questioning whether this exists at all. To me, it’s a slam dunk that he is dyslexic. He is really hurting in reading, spelling and writing. This is affecting his self-esteem, his sense of self-concept, really everything.”

Tracy Armstrong has been down this road. A parent of two in Ottawa, Tracy’s eldest child became increasingly anxious as she worked her way through public elementary school. “In Grade 1 we noticed the report card marks coming home were lower than what we expected and we were shocked,” says Tracy. She and her husband spoke with their daughter’s teachers about their concerns but, “They were minimizing everything. However, our daughter just wasn’t ‘getting’ reading, writing or spelling,” she says.

There were several challenging years spent volunteering in her daughter’s classroom, conducting research, and meeting with experts and educators – one of whom later identified dyslexia in her daughter. These days, things are looking up. Their daughter now attends a private school geared toward children with dyslexia. “Now I tell everyone: Make sure you follow through and listen to your child,” says Tracy. Of their struggle with school, she says, “It’s a long road, but it’s worth it.”

In fact, if you have a child who learns differently or one with an LD and think you’re not the type to investigate and speak up, think again! If parents don’t advocate on their child’s behalf, key factors can be missed. Just ask Kathryn Burke: “What I have seen and experienced with my son is that he started school so enthusiastically, but when I raised
my concerns with the school about learning delays, the teacher said, ‘all children develop differently, so don’t worry about it’. Unfortunately, that advice wasn’t effective.

We’re still seeing the impact of the learning disability with him now in Grade 10.” Burke
now speaks in public to parent groups and educators about LDs and ADHD and is active on several volunteer boards.

What now?

If you suspect your child is a shut-down learner, what are your options? First off is understanding that there are documented learning differences and styles and most kids aren’t being lazy when they fail to achieve at school. Next, you’ll want to sit down with your child’s teacher (and principal or special education teacher if available) to find out their take on your child’s progress at school.

After an informal assessment, some parents book an appointment for their child with a psychologist for a formal evaluation. Be aware of the potential cost of working with a psychologist outside the school system – in-depth assessments can cost up to $3,000. Some schools can arrange for in-house psychological testing, but getting an appointment can take a year or more.

If children still find school frustrating and stressful, some parents investigate switching to private school, enlisting tutors (at home or in school), home schooling or trying alternative schools. For more ideas and options, visit the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

A less costly route? Try typing “learning disability “or “learning style” in the search function on Google, Twitter or Facebook. You’ll find hundreds of hits for blogs, groups, forums and official websites on everything from mental health to visual-spatial learning. You can also ask the school principal for recommendations or develop informal groups with neighbours and community members to share ideas and build a support system.

Finally, when things with your shut-down learner are rough, remember the upside: “The positive is that kids with learning differences may be great architects or engineers or athletes,” says Selznick. “The key is identifying their strengths and keeping these kids afloat until they decipher their best path in life.”

Lisa Tabachnick Hotta is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont. She is the mother of two school-aged children whose academic development and learning styles are constantly evolving.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012. Updated in September 2023. 

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