When Learning is Hard


On my design board
Suppose, for example, you have a high schooler who tells you that stoichiometry makes no sense and must be done by voodoo, but you, who happen to have a degree in chemistry, think stoichiometry makes complete sense, so you proceed to tell him how very simple it is, not to mention fun. It's like Sudoku! Or Kenken! you tell him exuberantly. Until you remember that for some strange reason he takes no pleasure in math puzzles either. And then you seem to recall, neither fairly or accurately, that none of his seven older siblings had difficulty with stoichiometry, so what's his problem, anyway?

Yes - something along these lines was going on in my head last week as I worked with a bewildered son who did make some comparison between stoichiometry and voodoo. And I might have said something about how simple it really is.

At that point it became clear I needed to step back and reevaluate. Was the problem a lack of effort on his part? Well, yes, to some extent. But not entirely. (And his father spent some time addressing this!) But as I reflected, I realized I had done a poor job teaching this and some other chemistry concepts, flying through material which seems so obvious to me. So instead of pressing on, we backtracked to the point at which my son had become confused and spent a couple of days working through foundational material.

Phew. I think it's starting to come together now for him. Though yes, he still needs to apply himself thoroughly to conquer this subject for which he holds little love.

Why am I telling this story?

Because similar scenarios happen routinely in homeschools. Sometimes kids inhale knowledge and rapidly move on to the next level. Other times you watch a child go over the same material day after day, and you wonder if he will ever catch on. I had one child who learned to read before he was four and another who needed a year of intensive phonics at age eight to help him break the code.

When a child struggles to learn, there can be all sorts of reasons, including these:
- Maybe he just needs a bit more time or maturity
- Maybe he's not working hard enough
- Maybe he has some kind of processing difficulty
- Maybe the teacher did an inadequate job teaching the material in the first place
- Or maybe there is some combination of several of these

If one of your children is struggling with math facts, chemistry, reading, spelling, or something else, pause and reevaluate. Do some analysis and try to discern what is going on. Sometimes you can put the difficult material on hold for a while. Often my beginning readers would hit a plateau and need to park at a certain place for a while. Rather than hurrying through their reading program, I'd just find reading material on that level for a while without trying to introduce anything new.

Frequently, though, you'll need to try to figure out what is causing a roadblock. In the case of my son and chemistry, I had to find out the point at which he had gotten lost. After going back to that spot and making sure he understood some concepts from a previous chapter, he was ready to move forward. If you have a child struggling with math, often you can best help by finding a different way to present the material.

I have some suggestions (and some helpful links) specifically about teaching math facts for a future post, but here's one final thought about learning difficulties.

Struggle is a natural part of learning. Some kids struggle more than others, but all of them will butt their heads against some part of their academics. Yes, you as a parent, whether or not you are homeschooling, need to take measures to figure out exactly what issues are involved. But beyond that, remember that struggle isn't all negative.  Because as Mystie Winkler so wonderfully writes, "Math is Character Building"

Struggle, in fact, is often the best soil for a young person's growth and maturity.  My son who had the most difficulty learning to read? Having to work harder than his siblings to overcome his dyslexia produced the fruit of self-discipline, perseverance, and a work ethic that pays off time and again. (He's about to graduate from from college with a triple major and this summer will join the accounting office of a major corporation.)  So when your children struggle, don't panic but take a deep breath, give thanks for this opportunity, and make plans to move forward!


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