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Long Game!

in Spring 2020 by

It’s March! Along with the waning winter cold and promise of warmer days, this time of year offers the opportunity to take the time and space to pause for a thoughtful assessment of how the school year is going. For some families, spring parent-teacher conferences provide time to evaluate how learning is progressing. They are much anticipated opportunities for engagement and continued partnering; when the road to learning is mostly smooth, there is a predictable and positive trajectory. For others, this check-in and the plans that emerge may feel a bit weightier and perhaps even daunting. If you are the parent of a child whose school experience has been more “bumpy” than “smooth,” this article may be of particular interest to you. While there are no magic solutions, there is much to be gained by considering each year of your child’s learning journey as a part of a much longer life adventure.  

Children who require particular attention around learning differences may face challenges not experienced by some of their peers, and may need a range of resources to ensure that they are poised to do their best learning every day. Parents may feel particularly challenged if their child’s learning profile or school experience is markedly different from their own. It helps to know that you do not have to navigate this journey alone. An effective partnership with teachers and others who support your child’s learning is both pivotal and powerful in undergirding your child’s school years. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s also helpful to think about the long game. Across the years, prepare to provide support through the travails and to celebrate your child’s replenishing accomplishments.

Learning challenges can take many forms and range from mild to quite significant. They can include a relative weakness in one particular area, or there can be weaknesses in several areas, creating complex layers of impact when academic subjects require a combination of skills for success. Children who experience difficulties with sustained focus and attention, organization, executive functioning, sensory integration, fine motor skills, working memory, and/or language processing may find themselves facing difficulties with many of the demands of school. Having a diagnosed learning disability such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or a reading disability such as Dyslexia can bring challenges that permeate both the academic and social components of the school experience. As with other learning challenges, diagnosed disabilities might also be mild, moderate or severe and require careful assessment to determine both the kind and degree of support that will best meet each child’s needs. This is by no means an exhaustive list of learning challenges faced by children in school, and gaining a better understanding of what is standing in the way of a child’s learning is often best explored initially through observations, academic screenings, and/or educational testing. Consultation with teachers, tutors, division heads, the learning support director, and/or psychologist will provide guidance as to which paths to pursue.

Learning challenges that impact school may also affect life at home. Some parents are all too familiar with their child’s struggles to attend to multi-step requests. Perhaps this child may be prone to disorganization, and/or frequent frustration seemingly due to an inability to follow through with household routines. Problem solving around managing daily routines at home, as well as developing healthy attitudes and practices related to self-care, relationships, and extracurricular pursuits are as important as the efforts made for success in school. The following links provide useful resources for parents of children who need more support to navigate both home and school due to learning differences or diagnosed learning disabilities: https://www.understood.org/en, https://www.smartkidswithld.org/

Making space for engagement in at least one activity where your child feels strong and accomplished is important for refueling and “filling your child’s bucket” for the journey ahead. All children need spaces where they can relax into fun, feel free to be, and be recognized for their strengths and talents. Such pursuits are wonderful buffers for the harder parts of their lives and can serve to replenish their energies and build self-confidence and self-esteem. These activities might include visual arts, athletics, music, or other creative or enjoyable activities that will expand your child’s horizons.

At Park, a diverse learning community brings vibrancy, access to different perspectives, exposure to varied ways of solving problems and the chance to interact and collaborate with others who might move through the world differently than yourself. Attending a school with many kinds of learners also increases the likelihood that all children will find others who learn similarly to them. Having learning “mirrors” normalizes one’s experience and creates moments of familiarity and commiseration that can be helpful during the difficult times. Children benefit from the affinity of seeing and knowing others who learn as they do. They also benefit from explicit messaging from teachers that normalizes both learning differences and learning disabilities.  

For all children, finding ways to engage their “growth edges” is essential, as these are the spaces where they stretch, learn to solve problems, grapple with complex ideas, and gain experience with failure and recovery. It is this latter experience that is critical for building resilience. Easy may be fun, but having difficult experiences that require deep inquiry, collaborative effort, and dogged persistence allows invaluable learning to take place. The ultimate goal is to nurture all learners, encouraging good and productive effort that fuels and supports their long term success. Importantly, great care should be taken to assure children that their self-worth is not determined by their academic achievements or any other single area of accomplishment. Assuring their emotional well-being is most important, so support in this area must be provided as needed as well. 

On a recent Friday afternoon, children in a Grade 2 classroom were engaged in an activity that beautifully captured what can result from many small instances of labor, collaboration, mistakes, and effort. Where these students began (colorful/diverse materials, visionary instruction, a clear frame, collaborative peers) paled in comparison to what became a dazzling display of their hard work over time. Seeing is believing! It was only over time that their many little bits of effort, persistence in working through mistakes, and willingness to re-imagine the possibilities allowed this complex and complete work of art to emerge. Along the way, there was surely joy as well as consternation. Upon completion, there was much pride and the satisfaction of a job well done. 

Parenting is a “long game” proposition. Minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, it can be hard to see and appreciate the incremental but important work that is being done towards building new skills, new levels of awareness, and increased confidence. Indeed, it is the totality of these myriad learning experiences over many years that will ultimately result in your child becoming a healthy, secure, empathetic, and successful human being. After 32 years as a psychologist (22 of them at Park), I continue to be amazed by the strong and confident adults who were once growing and sometimes struggling children here in our classrooms. There is no one path or script. There is only the daily partnering of parents and school, the knowing and supporting of each child, and the assurance that this journey will be uniquely theirs.

Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, PhD (“Dr. O”) is the Psychologist at The Park School. Olivia joined the Park community in 1998 and has over 30 years of experience in private practice, forensic, community mental health and school settings, including the Brookline and Wellesley public schools. As the Psychologist, Olivia supports both faculty and students to ensure that Park is a developmentally attuned and supportive environment for the broad range of children and families that we serve. She welcomes partnering with parents as they navigate their child’s evolving journey in learning and growing.