For me, it happened in 8th grade biology. I was expected to be able to identify so many species of animals and plants AND understand their life cycles and physiological systems that it seemed I would never fit it all into my head. For my sister, undoubtedly one of the most intellectually gifted people I know, it didn’t happen until college. She sent me an email after one of the advanced physics classes she was taking in her freshman year, shocked to report that she had not immediately understood the concepts being taught in class and would have to work at it.
The challenge of learning is different for each of us, but we all reach a point in school when we need to truly WORK to grasp the concepts being taught. It may be in elementary, middle, high school or beyond, but the curriculum will eventually outpace the student’s ability to immediately understand what is taught. When students hit that wall, they have to be able to adjust how they learn in order to continue to be successful. On the contrary, if they cannot adjust, their performance will plateau and eventually plummet in the face of new challenges.
When students reach the point at which their natural abilities and well-worn habits won’t get them by anymore, the challenge can quite stressful. The ability to shift thinking and adjust to meet changing demands is an executive skill (link to Executive Skills post) governed by the brain’s frontal lobe, an area that does not fully develop until around the age of 25. For this reason, elementary and secondary school students may struggle when faced with a challenge that requires a shift in strategy. Instead of making the necessary adjustments to study habits, kids may appear frustrated and stuck with no answer. Homework and studying may be avoided, or schoolwork time may be full of tantrums or tears. Perhaps they will begin to “lose” work, refuse to complete it, or blame the teacher for not adequately teaching the material. Children will often resist looking critically at themselves and their own behaviors as a source of this struggle. As the rigor of school increases year to year, many students will have to be taught new academic skills in order to be successful with new challenges.
So, how can you help your child whose study habits have started to fail him in the face of tougher academic expectations? I like to approach improving academic achievement as a coach would who pushes an athlete to raise their peak performance. Athletes who want to be successful in football or soccer can’t just show up at games and try their best. Any coach would be remiss to even keep a player like that on the team! In order to promote athletic success, the coach works with the athlete to develop a training schedule and a set of exercises designed to improve performance of sport-specific skills. Then the athlete will have to discipline him or herself to consistently execute the prescribed training routine.
In athletics, it is important to design practice routines that will specifically target actions you are trying to improve. You wouldn’t spend all of your time on the bench press if you were training to be a better distance runner, would you? The same is true in the classroom. If the study habits that your child currently employs do not bring about the performance desired in the classroom, then the child’s training routine needs to be modified. A student can’t stick with the same old study habits and expect grades to get better!
So the first, and sometimes hardest, part of changing academic outcomes is getting students to admit that what they are currently doing is not working anymore. Once they realize that their current practice routine isn’t producing the desired results, they must commit to WORK for changed outcomes. Finally, a student must identify the areas of their training routine that not producing the desired results.
There are several sets of skills that must be evaluated and possibly modified in order to bring about new results in the classroom. Some basic categories of academic skills that will have to be considered for modification are:
2. Time management
3. Study strategies
4. Test-taking skills
5. Problem-solving (asking questions, finding help, etc…)
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting on each of these topics. I will share strategies that teachers and student services professionals at Patapsco Middle School often promote to help students achieve peak performance. I’ll also share tips and resources appropriate for anyone trying to encourage academic success in a middle school student. Whether or not they’ve had to struggle to succeed in the past, the time is coming when they’ll be faced with a new academic challenge that will require new preparation and strategies. Will they be able to raise their game when expectations go to the next level?