Too scared to learn
Sasha is an 8-year-old in Year 3 at school. It has never been easy. She has tried. Many times. When she first started school at the age of 5 she was excited but also terrified. She was excited because she was going to be starting at 'big school' and her older siblings had told her so many great things about school. She had loved going to pick them up when she is in preschool. But no one had told her about the work and the way that her work would be marked, scored, judged, and then displayed with everyone else's, displaying to the world that she was not very good at it. So now Sasha mostly feels terror. With every new learning task she grits her teeth and prepares for another experience of failure and exposure.
'you need to focus on your work'
'you can do better'
'practice makes perfect'
'i know you can do it'
'just do your best'
'we don't care about the marks'
'I showed you this yesterday'
'go an try it yourself first'
'less talking and more working'
Sasha has been hearing these comments since she started formal schooling but the truth is that even when she tries, she doesn't get it. And whenever she is asked to 'go and try' she begins to panic as she knows the outcome before she starts - another example of not being good enough. And she is not sure that she can actually do it...
Working with both children and adults has given me the amazing opportunity to repeatedly see the link between early learning experiences and the development of sense of self. The more I have worked with adults who are daring to believe maybe they aren't unworthy or incapable, the more passionate I have become about advocating and intervening for children. Some children are naturally built to succeed in schooling. And some children will have to fight to survive schooling. As adults, we know that formal schooling eventually ends, but our core beliefs and the way we see ourselves continues.
Sasha was eventually diagnosed with a learning disorder later in Year 3. While this didn't provide a 'cure' for her learning, what it did allow was for the system to be pushed to change for Sasha. It also provided insight into Sasha's schooling experience. She was bright and so she understood how the system worked. It helped us to understand that whenever Sasha was given an academic assessment aimed at grading her against others, it was taking another piece of her self-confidence and sense of self, and beginning to grow and develop a stronger sense of 'not good enough'.
I have worked as a school teacher and in my current work as a clinical psychologist, I often have the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing and dedicated teachers. But the system is not perfect, there is no perfect system. And so there are Sasha's who sometimes need us to listen and understand, to change the goal posts, and to help them find their amazingness. To walk very closely with them as they navigate an imperfect system so that they are able to continue to be life-long learners.
If you have a child who, like Sasha, is finding formal school challenging, then can I encourage you to continue to listen and to seek answers. To ask questions and to continue to strive to create the space where your child will flourish.
Greg Powell is a clinical psychologist and is the Director of themindspace psychology and education.
He is also a director with thegrowspace, an organisation located on the Northern Beaches of Sydney providing specialised tutoring and support to children with learning difficulties.