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How Emotional Issues Change as Kids Grow

An expert talks about the different emotional issues which can affect the way children learn in school.

GreatSchools Blog

By Priscilla L. Vail, M.A.T.

In this article, Priscilla Vail, M.A.T. describes how emotional issues differ at various stages of development, and what parents should look for with elementary, middle, and high school students.

Although emotional hungers remain constant throughout human life, particular needs intensify at different periods. Let's look first at pre-school and elementary school, then at middle school which encompasses pre-and early adolescence, and finally at high school and beyond, the kingdoms of later adolescence and early adulthood.

Young children progress from learning to love to loving to learn. Their first teachers are, of course, their parents. When that relationship is warm, abundant and trusting, children draw from it deeply, freely, and often. They respond to parental love with new growth, they respond to parental pride with new daring, and they respond to parental trust with new faith in themselves. They also respond to parental disappointment with curdled self-concept, they respond to parental rejection with withered embrace of life, and they respond to parental loss with a subtle or overt death of the heart.

From the lessons of daily life, each child builds an armamentarium of attitudes and assembles a wardrobe of costumes and disguises. Above all, young children fear the loss of parental love. Since they believe "I am what I can make work," their introduction to formal learning, with its first successes or failures, dictates their feelings of worthiness or unworthiness to hold that great and irreplaceable prize, parental love.

Practically, this means parents must exercise extreme caution in starting the child's formal schooling. This decision should not be based on the timetable of the socially correct carpool but on the child's developmental readiness for the tasks presented. Once your child is in school, you as parents must be vigilant about progress or problems in early reading and writing. A tragic casualty of the recent reading wars between whole language and phonics has been that some children have never been shown the method(s) that would help them succeed. Consequently, they feel stupid, unworthy, or both, and often try to hide the extent of their difficulty from their parents, fearing banishment, or withdrawal of love and approval should the truth be known. Consider the added distress when the child has siblings for whom academic tasks are a snap.

If your child has trouble in the early levels of school, get help immediately! Do not wait to see if the child will grow out of it. Prevention is always easier than remediation. Learning differences don't disappear spontaneously, and talent doesn't bloom in a vacuum. If you worry that receiving extra help will make Johnny/Sue feel different, forget it. A child already feels different by virtue of what he can and cannot do. Encourage the discovery of the big message: different can be successful. The child who has learned to love deserves to love to learn.

Middle schoolers need parents and teachers who reach to the heart, then teach to the head. The pre- or early adolescent has shed a mouthful of baby teeth, acquired big choppers, and wears enormous sneakers. In addition, many of today's middle schoolers have a large vocabulary of sexually explicit terms they fling around with noisy glee. Cumulatively, these milestones may create an incorrect impression of overall maturity and semi-adulthood. But underneath the appearance of sophistication, these kids are still young, unformed, longing for leadership, aching for behavioral guidelines and social limits, and profoundly grateful when a parent has the courage to say "No."

In school, as pediatrician Mel Levine tells us, kids in this age group are guided by one governing agenda: the avoidance of humiliation at all costs. This may mean that a student with weak handwriting or poor spelling, whose written assignments come back covered with red slash marks, may prefer not to hand in written work. The child whose contributions to classroom discussions are greeted with hoots or jeers (or quiet snickers from the power points of the class) will clam up. The kid who reads poorly may disrupt discussion of last night's reading by burping or other wind-driven activities. The kid who understands the hardest math intuitively or who remembers Juliet's speech by heart may conceal intellectual power in order to blend in with the group.

Reach to the heart, teach to the head. One thirteen year old's three favorite Christmas presents were a book of logic puzzles, a nightgown for her American Girl doll, and a blue fur telephone. In the words of the poet Anon:

I ride a yo-yo
In your presence
Thirteen's a year of
Addled essence.

In high school and beyond, kids reach for two simultaneous and contradictory goals: anonymity and fame. Beyond native intelligence, academic success requires a ready supply of basic skills, organization, the ability to juggle facts and vocabulary from many disciplines, a relatively quiet place to do homework, enough food and sleep, and some free time to ruminate on new information, concepts, and connections. In today's culture many of these are missing before the student even enters ninth grade. Parents need to be aware of these needs and supply them as fully as reality allows.

After-school jobs, athletic practices, and play rehearsals (not to mention learning arcane hobbies for the college application process) teach kids that there isn't enough time. The corollary of this is to reward them for skimming the surface of their work in order to check it off the list. The emotional price tag of skimming is the discounting of deep enjoyment and immersion. Kids who pay this price feel hurried and inadequate.

If average kids fall into these traps, what about those who struggle? Some drop out physically, emotionally, or intellectually. Others, preferring wickedness to invisibility, who hang around to see the action but won't risk competing, are particularly vulnerable to drugs and booze. Still others, fearful and lonely, craving closeness and intimacy, gravitate to sex and gangs. The English poet Stevie Smith says, "I was too far out all my life and not waving but drowning."

Parents of this age group, you need spine, humor, a clear sense of your own values, and a willingness to be temporarily unpopular. You also need to build into family time ample opportunities to enjoy your kid and let that contagion do its benevolent job.

In the words of the poet ee cummings, "I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."

Hold fast to what you know and believe. Be of joyful voice.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/8/2011:
"I love the article and i will put in use the ideas presented. Thank you. "
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