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:
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 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.
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.
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.
Reprinted with permission 2010