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From Stumbling Blocks To Building Blocks

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Venkata Vinay, Academic Lead of IMAX Program by ClassKlap, writes about the hiccups faced by children in studies and how parents can help them

Let us look at three scenarios in schools today.
Scenario 1: 
Tofik always has a smile on his 9-year-old face except in math class. He is in grade 4 and finds it difficult to comprehend basic addition. His class is now learning multiplication and division, both of which are beyond his scope of understanding. He is now considered ‘below average’ and is subject to ridicule and at times even a sharp twist of the ear. This has led him to develop math anxiety, "a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance", as Mark H. Ashcraft puts it. The immediate reaction is avoidance of math which makes him shy away or be restless in class. Tofik avoids contact with his teacher and does not seek help from others in fear of being ridiculed or scolded.

Scenario 2: Rakhi is a student in grade 3 at a private school. She finds it difficult to pronounce and spell common words such as ‘could’, ‘about’, and‘ use’, to name a few. She is largely clueless about what has happened in the class given that she cannot read most of the text in her books. Her vocabulary is very limited. As E. Myrberg says, “Children who lag behind in early years’ reading face greater difficulties later on as texts get longer and complicated”.

Scenario 3: Maria just turned 8. According to his teachers, he is ‘studious’. He scores well and is well behaved in class. That should be an ideal situation for him to be in. However, Maria constantly looks tensed and stressed in class. Everything he does should be right. The other day, he lost a mark in the social studies class test and kept crying the entire day, fearing punishment from his parents. In her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Lahey, a teacher and writer for the Atlantic and the New York Times, writes, “Today’s over-protective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation”.

Tofiks, Rakhis, and Marias are present in schools across the country. They are evidence of the challenges of the education system in India—a system in which learning gaps go unsupported and learning errors unpardoned. However, as parents, we aspire a lot for them. While a systemic change is welcome, there are other equally important changes that parents can do to assist them.  

Here are three crucial areas where parents can take simple steps to support their children.
1. Remedy math anxiety

Discuss emotions openly -Math anxiety is more about anxiety and less about math. Parents can ask their children how they are feeling in multiple circumstances such as solving problems, submitting homework, being asked to solve on the board, preparing for exams, and so on. They can talk with them about the reasons behind those fears and also encourage them.

Mistakes are an opportunity to learn - Parents should share the message that making mistakes help to clear misunderstandings and enable learning. Ensuring that children focus not only on the intermediate steps but also the final answer is crucial. If a child has problems, get them back to the basics.

Watch out for critical areas - There are certain critical areas in math which if not done properly can lead to anxiety later on. For example, in primary school, the key topics are place value, numerical comparison, carryover and borrowing in addition/subtraction, and long division. It is important to make sure that children know the basics in these topics.

2. Bridge the reading and writing gap
Use word walls at home - One way to help children achieve word fluency is through the use of word walls and word wall activities. They help strengthen children’s high-frequency word recognition which thus results in an increase of words read per minute. All it requires is a coloured chart paper stuck to the wall and a few sketch pens. Parents can ask their children to write new words that they learn at school on the word wall; read those words aloud along with their spellings and meanings, and if possible, make a few sentences on their own.

Home reading environment - Elizabeth Hamilton, in her article on ‘Create a positive home reading environment’, says that, in a Harvard University study, "home reading environment" was rated as the single-most important home factor affecting literacy development in children. One sure way is to keep plenty of age-appropriate reading material readily available at home. If you are not sure about your child’s reading level, you can use the five finger rule. Ask your child to read a page or a paragraph from any book. Count every word that they find difficult to read. If you count five or more such words, that book is too difficult for the child. We can then ask the child to select another book.

3. Celebrate the effort
Children’s motivation hugely influences their efforts to learn. Parents should be mindful of effective and ineffective ways of motivating their children.

Ineffective encouragement is not realistic or specific and often focuses too much on the outcome. Effective motivation articulates the emotion felt by the child while doing an activity. Instead of a general statement like “good job”, parents should point out specific aspects such as “nice usage of different colours. Parents often praise the final achievement. However, the best motivation happens when parents link the achievement to the effort put into reaching that achievement. For example, “You learnt from your mistakes in the previous examination and practiced hard to avoid those. Good show of focus and hard work!” When children focus more on effort rather than the final achievement, it helps them to learn from both successes and failures. They can thus see it as an ongoing journey.

Parents are the first and life-long educators of children. There is no doubt that parental involvement can make a significant difference in achievements of children. By focusing on the learning gaps of children and helping the children address those early on, parents can help them become the best version of themselves.

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