A Flexible Approach

After working with literally thousands of children as a teacher, school principal, and executive function coach, I can say without hesitation that while every kid has their unique personality and profile of strengths and challenges, not all challenges are created equal. Whether they’ve been diagnosed with a specific learning challenge or not, for any given task there are some kids who are more apt to struggle than others.

As parents, the best thing we can do is recognize when to push our kids to work independently and when to provide them support and coaching. Sometimes, it’s good to bring out our inner task master and tell our kids to toughen up and solve the problem themselves; it’ll build character. At other times, it’s important to call upon our inner therapist and guide our kids with the compassionate supports they need. This will help them achieve the success they need to become confident and increasingly independent.

The decision of which tack to take is predicated on seeing our children accurately and being flexible enough to have more than one approach. Remind yourself of the saying, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” before you run the risk of applying the same tool to many different situations.

Cold Facts and Snap Judgment

How can you tell if your child needs support instead of a lecture? The first place to begin is by observing your child with the assumption that he or she wants to do well. If that is the case, is your child doing what makes sense?

For example, does your child read and paraphrase the directions for an assignment to make sure he understands them before he begins? Does your child make a plan for how to tackle the night’s homework, prioritizing those things due the next day while putting aside time for longer-term projects, so she keeps apace of them?

In this phase, ask questions with a tone of curiosity and no judgment, such as, “On a scale of 1-5 with 1 being ridiculously easy and 5 being impossible, how hard is it for you to know what goes where in your writing?” or simply “What do you think the teacher wants you to do on this assignment?” See if your child knows why he is stuck.

You are simply gathering data here, trying to see the situation more clearly, rather than reacting to your own (and your child’s) frustration. The problem with reacting out of frustration is not just that it leads to tension between the two of you. It actually prevents you from seeing the problem clearly. You really will be unable to tell if your child’s struggles are more “I can’t” or “I won’t.”

Gathering this kind of information will allow you to make an intuitive leap and reach a conclusion. Perhaps you’ll see that something is going on, that your child’s impulsiveness, obsession with video games, daydreaming, or oppositional behavior is something they need help with instead of reprimands about. At that point, you will know that it’s time to talk to a professional.

You’ll start with your child’s teacher, then consider an evaluation through the school or an outside professional, and/or getting support from an organization that addresses the kinds of learning challenges that are beginning to become clearer. If you’ve made the conscious decision to observe before judging and determined that your child may not be simply lazy or rebellious but probably does not have the skills to manage her time effectively, to make transitions between activities, or to plan out projects, then you will understand why she needs support before increasing expectations will have a lasting impact.

Play Ball

All the exhortations in the world could not get me—at 5’5”—to dunk a basketball. However, I can still play the game, and with my good outside shot, I can contribute to my team. If you know what your challenge is, you can work around it by using your strengths and a good work ethic.

Red Sox fans, one way to understand this is: if your kid has ADHD, he or she might not be the next Dustin Pedroia, a batter whose remarkable talent is leaving bad pitches alone and getting on base. Your child with ADHD might, however, be the next David Ortiz, a powerful slugger who regularly hits home runs even though he strikes out more than most of the pros. For all of our kids, learning to capitalize on strengths has to be part of the strategy, even as they work on improving in their areas of challenge.

Remember, underneath the missing homework assignments, the impulsivity, the “are you even listening?” moments, there is a tremendous amount of potential in that kid of yours. The key to unlocking that potential is to know when to provide an encouraging push and when to provide a guiding hand.


This post was written by guest writer, Michael Delman, CEO of Beyond BookSmart.

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