Strength and Stamina
Kids need two capacities in order to build academic skills: strength and stamina. They need to be strong enough to face challenges without collapsing into a puddle of discouragement. They need stamina—the ability to keep trying and persisting, past their natural fatigue.
Instead of measuring your children against a rubric of skills (they should be able to write a 5 sentence paragraph without my help by age 9, you might think), measure your child’s endurance! If your child is finding it difficult to write, the solution isn’t to wring your hands over the fact that your child isn’t at grade level. The solution is to build strength and stamina.
In fact, all of education could be reduced to these two qualities. The mind needs to be able to give focused attention to perplexing problems. Focus, when it is on a brain-stretching activity, is tiring. The mind doesn’t show fatigue the same way a muscle does. Yet it collapses when exhausted by refusing to think new thoughts, by becoming foggy and distracted, and by ignoring useful information.
The mind gives up when it is tired. It wants to take a break and does so by seeking distraction or refusing to process information.
The anxious parent, eager to hit skill markers, will push, will blame, will require.
“Just two more problems. You don’t have it down yet.”
“Don’t be lazy. You have to work harder.”
“If you don’t get this done by dinner, we’re going to do two more pages before bed.”
These strategies are no more effective than telling an exhausted runner that she has to go two more miles at a faster pace because her last two miles were too slow. It’s theater of the absurd!
Reframe how you understand your role in your learner’s life. To build stamina, to increase strength—think like a trainer in a gym. The initial strategy is to do small repetitions of the skills needed, in short bursts of all out effort.
A child who finds writing tedious and draining will do better writing two words, taking a break, writing two more words, taking another break, and then two more words. That process may seem unnecessary to you, or you may feel that you could never be disrupted that many times in a row and still complete the sentence being copied. But for a child who gives full focus and intensity to the task, two perfectly hand-written words may exhaust the current store of energy in the brain. To keep going may create conditions for slacking off or doing a half job (sort of like lifting a weight half way).
Taking breaks, building up to more repetitions, shortening the breaks between bursts of effort over time, is more likely to get you and your child where you want to go than requiring more and more output just because some scope and sequence says it must be done!
Ask your child for input:
“Can you handle writing two words now and two more ten minutes later?”
On the next day:
“Shall we try that process again, but add a third pair of words? Want to see how well you can sustain your focused attention?”
And so on.
Put strength building and stamina ahead of measuring output and you’ll see far more growth.