Understanding shut-down learners

Seven strategies to help your child climb from struggles to success.

By Dr. Richard Selznick

Throughout preschool and her early elementary grades, Emma was sunny, confident, and engaged in school. Now 12 and in sixth grade, her teacher’s comments paint a different picture: “Emma enters class pleasantly, and she seems to get along nicely with the other kids. During class, however, Emma never participates, and it seems that her mind is elsewhere. Emma’s work reflects a general lack of effort. It’s almost as if she doesn’t care.”

What happened to the sunny, confident, and engaged Emma?

Jacob, age 9, loves playing with Legos and other hands-on materials. Building elaborate cities and complex scenes, he is confident and very capable. In class, though, Jacob is unenthusiastic. An observer watching Jacob’s lack of connection and energy would probably think his light bulb was dim. Often he looks pained in class — particularly during open-ended writing assignments.

A recent sample of Jacob’s writing about a school experience offers insight into his in-class struggles: “One day in scool it started as and ordenary day but at resec we hade a safty meet and I got my posit (post) I got to raes the flag It was cool because every morning I hade to come to scool erly to raseis the flag and tack down the flag I was cool because I was incharg of the flag that is one thing that happond to me.”

While these children are quite different in style and personality, both manifest the signs of a shut-down learner. These signs typically start to emerge in the upper elementary grades and become much more pronounced by high school. They include:

Understanding the formula of shut-down learners

Shut-down learners are children who become academically discouraged and disconnected from school over time. A simple formula helps explain how kids become shut-down learners: Cracks in the foundation + time + lack of understanding + strained family communication = shut-down learner.

Understanding this formula will help parents of children like Emma and Jacob be in a better position to take appropriate action.

Cracks in the foundation

Cracks in a child’s learning can usually be identified as early as preschool and kindergarten. Indicators during this period are easily identified: Does your child have trouble learning letter names and their sounds, for example? By first grade, is your child taking steps toward blending sounds? In middle to upper elementary school, is writing a laborious, often agonizing process for your son or daughter?

If the answer is yes to these questions, it does not necessarily follow that your child will become a shut-down learner. However, like cracks in your house that expand if unaddressed, it is important to act to prevent academic cracks from widening. Otherwise, they will contribute to discouragement over time and a child ultimately shutting down.

Lack of understanding

In my evaluation of shut-down learners, I have found that many receive work on a daily basis that they simply cannot handle, causing them unnecessary frustration. Too often, parents and teachers do not understand the skill deficits that are causing a child difficulty. For example, I recently tested a fourth-grader who struggled to read certain words presented in a text, including porcupine, passage, and amazement. Since most fourth-graders read silently to themselves, the student's teacher and parents mistakenly believed that she had a comprehension problem, when she was actually experiencing difficulties with word reading and decoding.
Additionally, many children who struggle in school simply do not have problems deemed to be “severe enough” to warrant special education. For those children, parents will need to seek outside remedial help in the form of tutoring, where available.

Strained family communication

The beginning of homework time often marks an increase in the household temperature, as screaming and arguing become part of the landscape. Strained communication around homework can be overwhelming for families and can contribute to a child becoming a shut-down learner.

Preventing shut-down learners

  1. Trust your gut: If you believe your child is experiencing difficulties at school, listen to yourself. Don’t wait or fall for such oft-used statements as “You know how boys are” or “She’ll grow out of it.” Act on your feelings even if your child has been deemed ineligible for school services. Consult a trustworthy, competent person outside of school whom you feel comfortable with to assess your child.
  2. Know what you are targeting: If your child’s assessment has identified issues of concern, chances are an area in your child’s reading needs addressing. There are essentially two types of reading problems: In the first, the child has trouble decoding words and reading fluently. In the second, the child can read fluently but experiences great difficulty understanding what he or she has read. Get clear on the exact issues you hope to resolve. Don’t scattershot remediation.
  3. Take the heat out of the interaction: Try to step back a little bit and turn down the heat in the house. The daily ritual of yelling, pecking, or nagging never leads to positive change. When was the last time your child said, “Thanks for yelling, Mom. I see your point. I’ll get down to business”? Right. Never. Why persist? Your kid is probably feeling overwhelmed by homework he or she can barely handle. In raising the heat, you’re simply adding stress to his or her life.
  4. Turn down the temperature: Kids need emotional fuel to tackle their school difficulties, especially those who derive little gratification from their efforts. Look for the small things that your child is doing well. Statements like "Wow, I like the way you took out your work tonight without my asking” can really mean a lot to a child, especially one who might be a bit discouraged.
  5. Find someone to connect with and mentor your child in school: The shut-down learners I know do not feel very good about themselves and do not see their true strengths. If your child is of middle school age or older (those preteen and teenage years when the development of a sense of self is critical), it is particularly important for him or her to have at least one person in school who really values him or her and will rally on your child’s behalf — even if he or she isn’t succeeding academically.
  6. Maintain a sense of equilibrium: Do something fun and enjoyable with your child. Play a board game or do an arts and crafts project together. Most kids would enjoy doing an activity like that with you. Try not to let school problems set the tone for the entire household and all of your interactions.
  7. Support your child: Academic discouragement is debilitating to children and families. Connecting with your child’s natural strengths and letting him or her know that you are both on the same team can make an enormous difference in preventing your child from becoming a shut-down learner.

Reprinted with permission 2010

Dr. Richard Selznick is a child psychologist and the director of the Cooper Learning Center, part of Cooper University Hospital's Department of Pediatrics, in New Jersey. He is the author of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child.