Growing up I always thought I was “smart,” and yet I knew I was also a “bad speller.” My identification with these traits came from feedback I got from my parents repeatedly throughout my childhood, shaping the concept I had for who I was and what I was capable of accomplishing. I still remember my mom chiding me one morning about how I misspelled “tomorrow” on a note I had left her the night before while she was out. “Megan, how come you don’t know that tomorrow has two ‘r’s’ and not two ‘m’s’? We just talked about this last week!” she asked with frustration. My answer of course at that point, was simply, “because I’m a bad speller.”
When I see parents in my learning center, they are very often at points of frustration in not knowing what is getting in the way of their child’s success or knowing what the problem is but not knowing how to help. These circumstances very naturally open the door to comments focused on what the child cannot do.
“Billy is not a good reader.”
“Jessica is totally disorganized. Her room and backpack are always a disaster.”
These comments are helpful for me in a private professional setting when trying to understand the nature of the learning challenges we can help a child overcome. Yet, they always leave me wondering what happens at home; what words are conveyed to this child about his or her capabilities and potential?
The Power of Positive Words
The words we use to praise or criticize children have powerful effects on their sense of self. As parents it truly pays to put time into carefully crafting the messages relayed to children about their abilities and their areas for growth. Yes, you heard that right…I didn’t say “weaknesses.” I said, “areas for growth.”
When we define a skill as a weakness and emphasize that it is something an individual cannot do or is bad at, we leave no room for that child to see his or her potential to improve on that skill. As a child, I did not think there was a way for me to become a better speller; I just knew I was not good at spelling.
I know mom had only good intentions—and with two other children at home demanding her attention around dinner/homework time, it is understandable that she got frustrated! Yet, I now know there is a more productive way to approach a learning challenge. If we can address the challenge as a challenge in and of itself, rather than identifying it as a trait that is fixed in a child, there is hope and encouragement for growth. Had my mom said, “Megan, you are good at so many things, so I wonder why your spelling is so inconsistent. Does this bother you? Would you like some extra help with it?” I might have found confidence with her support and been open to receiving help with my spelling.
In working with children in my learning center, I have always been astonished with their tremendous potential for growth. I’ve seen children with neuropsychological reports that would leave you seriously doubting that the child could ever find success in school; and yet, I have seen these very same children persevere and overcome learning challenges. Our abilities are far from fixed, and with the right educational support children can develop skills and strategies that allow them to access their strengths and just about blow you away with their super powers.
I encourage you to reframe the concerns you have about your child’s learning struggles. Instead of saying your child is “not good at reading,” try, “My child is having a hard time learning to read.” If your concern is in math, try a similar approach: “My child is not getting along with math these days.” If you think your child has poor time management skills (and he/she probably does!), reframe it to say, “it is really hard for Johnny / Sally / Javier to figure out how to get everything done that he/she needs to do.” It’s a subtle difference, but the simple change will make make a huge impact.
As you change your phrasing and open your child up to seeking help for his or her academic challenges, be sure to offer specific, authentic verbal feedback on the growth you see. Unexpected compliments on effort—rather than outcome—encourage continued effort in the same direction. Parents are all too often focused on the ideal outcome and miss the baby steps in between. Literally, think of it like a baby learning to walk. You didn’t wait until your child was walking in full strides down the sidewalk to sing him or her praises; you encouraged every attempt towards standing, balancing on those wobbling legs, and eventually attempting steps across a room before tumbling over. Praise throughout the process is just as important as a celebration when a goal is reached. Keep cheering along the way and be ready to throw a party at the finish line!
Megan loves helping children find a love for learning through educational therapy and supporting parents to bring out their children’s fullest potential. Follow her happenings and stay in touch via Facebook, www.facebook.com/LaJollaLearningWorks, or email, megan@LJLearningWorks.com.