We were working on reading in phrases and she was going along well, when her face started to crumple, her eyes filled with tears, and she began breathing very quick, shallow breaths. The stress reaction was becoming full-blown very quickly.
Just as quickly, when distracted from the task, 10-year-old Serena recovered and became her friendly, precocious self, able to briefly continue the task. This pattern repeated itself on most tasks involving reading or spelling.
So what happened? Was Serena putting on an act to get out of work? Well, yes and no. Serena was defaulting to an old coping strategy – one that had served to get her out of reading and spelling in the past, but was no longer needed as her skills grew.
When smart kids struggle in school, it’s frustrating and embarrassing for them. They often sub-consciously develop coping strategies to get away from a really uncomfortable task, or to cover the fact that they can’t do the work. This may look like:
- Being the class clown (because, “If I’m funny, maybe no one will notice that I can’t do the work”)
- Flying under the radar by being sweet, quiet, and helpful (“If I’m sweet and helpful, maybe you’ll sit with me so I don’t have to struggle through this work alone”)
- Being belligerent or aggressive (“Getting into trouble is better than everyone thinking I’m dumb”)
- Using capital Bs and Ds to cope with confusion about b and d (“I can never figure out b/d so I just quit using them”)
And in Serena’s case, falling into extreme anxiety. This is a real and frightening reaction. Parents and teachers realized that in that anxious state, Serena wasn’t going to learn anything, so tasks were often changed, eliminated, or postponed.
When students have coping strategies, it’s because they serve them in some way – they need them in order to manage. But coping is usually uncomfortable and inefficient and ultimately gets in the way of being a comfortable, independent learner.
What’s at the Root of the Problem?
Academic and social success depends upon a solid foundation of cognitive learning skills. If you think about these skills like a ladder or a continuum, academics and school subjects are at the very top. Many other skills must be in place in order to learn easily at the top of the ladder. When the underlying skills, or skills lower on the continuum are weak, they may keep children and adults from learning and functioning as well and as independently as they should.
If we want to permanently correct or change a learning or attention challenge, we have to identify and develop the weak underlying skills that are not supporting the learner well enough and then remediate the affected academic skills.
In Serena’s case, weak phonemic awareness made it difficult for her to think about the sounds in words for reading and spelling and visual disorientation on the page caused her to feel seasick when trying to read words that appeared to be in constant motion. Combined with her high expectations for herself, Serena became extremely anxious whenever she had to read or spell. Even as her auditory and visual processing challenges began to be resolved and reading and spelling started to make more sense, the connection between reading and her anxiety reaction was still very strong.
Permission to Let Go of the Coping Strategy
As we work with students to develop the underlying foundational skills that they need in order to succeed academically, we also have to help them let go of the coping strategies that they once needed in order to cover or manage their learning challenges.
Sometimes, that means giving them a replacement behavior, and always, it means helping them give themselves a different message. In Serena’s case, we taught her a focusing and calming technique that she could do every time she started to feel anxious and we taught her to say, “I don’t need to get anxious anymore; I’ve got this.”
Most learning and attention challenges can be dramatically improved or completely corrected by identifying and developing the weak underlying skills and remediating the affected basic academic skills. We have seen this thousands of times over the last 30 years and the brain research in the last 3 decades has proven that the brain can be retrained. Our bright but struggling students do not have to hate school or resort to coping strategies to survive it. If you have a child who is struggling in school, we can help.
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