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Helping a shut-down learner learn to thrive

Dr. Richard Selznick is a child psychologist and the director of the Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey. He is the author of “The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child.” Selznick looks for certain signs in the child’s behavior that are often not obvious to parents or even educators, pediatricians or general practitioners to help understand the child’s school struggling.

The most common key to helping a shut-down learner is identifying whether a child has sufficient “emotional fuel.” Here is how he explains the most common situation he hears from parents asking about the problems that plague their children:

Succeeding in school: Emotional fuel

Seven-year-old Marissa is in the first grade.  Reading comes easy to her.  Spelling and writing are fun. Teachers smile a great deal in their interactions with Marissa and make nice comments on her tests and papers.  Positive reactions come from Marissa’s parents who post the teacher’s comments on the refrigerator.

In short, Marissa derives much gratification from her school experience.  The praises and successful outcomes add “emotional fuel” to Marissa’s growing reserves.  As time goes by, this fuel will serve Marissa well for meeting the inevitable challenges of school.

Shut-down learners: Nothing in the gas tank

Contrast the scenario above with the Emily, who is the same age.  Emily has the mirror image opposite experience to Marissa. For Emily preschool, kindergarten and first grade have been nothing but a struggle.  Learning the alphabet and the sounds that go along with the letters has been excruciating.  Trying to read words seems painful and reading out loud is embarrassing for her.  There are many Emily’s in every school district of the country.

These children quickly become victims to a negative feedback loop.  Negative reactions, either subtle or overt, are sensed and experienced. Deriving little gratification from the ongoing school encounters, the child starts to shut-down and become disconnected by degrees. Like air leaking out of the tire, over time there is little emotional fuel to carry the child along.

Filling the tank with emotional fuel


To counter the downward spiral in of the struggling child, the adults in the child’s life (parents and teachers), must pay very close attention and offer support and empathy to counter negative feelings, insecurity and the limited sense of gratification.  Empathy and support give the child emotional fuel. It is this fuel that allows her to work through her difficulties. Once the children feel more understood a weight is lifted.  There will be more fuel to tackle challenges.

A child’s attitude towards learning is enhanced only when there is and encouraging, supportive relationship between the tutor and the child.  This relationship is true with normal children, however it is particularly important for discouraged children.  Discouraged children are demoralized and disheartened.  They do not perceive hope and they lack enthusiasm for meeting challenges.  They need positive relationships to counter their discouragement.

You can add emotional fuel to the child’s reserves in many ways:

  • Assume discouragement if child is struggling.  A struggling child may not tell you she is discouraged.  Even if the child maintains a cheery demeanor, assume a certain amount of discouragement.  Small empathetic comments go a long way. “Honey, I know this is hard for you.  School was hard for me to a lot of the time.”

  • Watch yelling and sarcasm. Yelling and sarcastic statements are the number one tools parents use today and they are very hurtful to kids.  It’s so easy to lash out a child who doesn’t seem to be trying.  Stop yelling and being sarcastic.

  • Find a fun activity Brief game interactions can add an enormous sense of energy to the child. For example, playing Uno with kids is a great example and something kids would look forward to doing.  The game’s not long and drawn out and it usually can hold enough interest for kids and adults alike.  Kids get much emotional fuel from playing games with adults.  Take the time to play a game or two once in a while during the week.

  • Embrace the child’s strength(s). Many struggling shut-down learners are wonderful with hands-on activities.  These “Lego kids” thrive with visual and spatial activities.  Feed the child some more.  Exercise these mental muscles.  Find more of these types of activities to do with the child.  Build a model. Create a Lego city. Make a diorama.  Have fun!!!! Build on the strengths and talents the child shows you.

  • Enlist the child as a helper. Some of you may remember the good old days where there were actual blackboards in schools. Kids loved to be the eraser monitors – the ones that got to go outside and clean the erasers against the walls.  Find tasks like this for the child to do in school and at home to give him or her a sense of participation, belonging and competency.  They will love to do these.

Remember, children are not car engines that can be fixed by getting replacement parts.

Only through relationship building and understanding can kids find themselves with a great deal of renewed energy for overcoming their deficit areas.

The bottom line? The most important thing that parents can do is to pay attention to the child and go slow.

It will also be helpful to see a learning specialist.  Get a referral or get an appointment, do whatever it takes.  Seeing a learning specialist is to best way to make sure your child gets the best and most effective treatment.

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