Those of you who have elementary school-aged children know how busy they can be. There’s tons of homework, as evidenced by their heavy backpacks, there’s soccer, and ballet, and tutors, and little league, and basket weaving, and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance and…you get the point.
Erik Erikson called this period of development the time of “industry vs. inferiority.” He felt that children during this time either felt successful and industrious, or they were frustrated by their limitations and therefore felt inferior. This period is one of growth, which is a very exciting time if school, sports, and navigating the playground all come naturally, or a very difficult time for clumsy children with learning problems or social anxieties.
During this time academics is the child’s job. They have very little choice, actually, no choice, when it comes to this job, and they must stay in this job for about a dozen years. If they manage to get through without much difficulty, then those years will be viewed fondly when they are adults. If they struggle, as many children do, their memories of school will be painful. When I test young children for possible disabilities or learning issues, my biggest concern is that we can’t allow them to get turned off by school. If a first grader gets turned off by school out of frustration, it will be very hard to get him excited about learning in the future, and the next several years can be torture.
If a child struggles academically, but is good at sports, art, music, or some other activity outside of school, he will often find happiness in that. He will feel productive and industrious if he is able to paint the mural for the school play, or is the star of the soccer team. I have worked with learning disabled children for whom school would probably never be easy, but they were gifted artists, deep thinkers, creative problem-solvers, or otherwise had some talents that could be nurtured to build their self-esteem. One little boy I remember struggled terribly in school, and probably always would. Pursuing an academic degree in college was probably not in the cards for him, but boy, could he draw! I have no doubt that this little boy was talented enough to eventually make a living as an illustrator or in a similar art-related career. I always encouraged him to pursue that road, while doing the best he could in school. I told him I could not promise him that reading would ever be easy, but that it would get easier the more he worked with his teachers and tutors, and that he should savor his progress rather than being frustrated by his weaknesses.
It is not only learning disabled children that can go through bouts of feeling inferior to their peers. A child might be a good student (as I was), but be clumsy at sports (as I was). When the child is out of his element, for example, the good math student who now has to perform in PE, he may feel overwhelmed and self-conscious. That start athlete may freeze when he has to participate in a spelling bee. Or that child who does so well in dance may not feel comfortable singing in the holiday concert. What is important is that we praise their efforts, encourage them to pursue the things they are good at, and to do their best at things that are hard for them.
School is an interesting phenomenon. In adulthood, we can choose careers and activities that draw from our strengths. It was while studying engineering that I realized I could possibly make a living listening to people’s worries since I was doing it on a daily basis with my friends. When I got that 38 on that first calculus test I was able to make a choice and find a path that was more suitable for me. In the fifth grade we don’t have that choice, and we can feel extremely frustrated, angry, and defeated if we don’t find some way to show off our talents.
For those of you with children in this age group, try not to focus on your child’s struggles, instead acknowledge that some things are harder than others and take more effort, while encouraging him to spend more time on activities that bring him success. For the teachers out there, don’t forget to praise the things that have nothing to do with the three R’s, such as artistic abilities, athleticism, even being a good friend or an astute listener. After all, I parlayed nosiness into a pretty lucrative career.
Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resource Center