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Dr. Elaine Heffner ghns
Dr. Elaine Heffner
Sept. 17, 2013 12:10 p.m.



With school in session again, education is front and center. Soon, if not already, there will be homework, and familiar struggles with children who would rather be doing something else. With so much pressure these days on both children and parents for academic success, this may be a good time to think about how our children learn best, and how we as parents can best be helpful.



Even though children are taught in classes, that does not mean they are all in the same place or that they all learn in the same way. Each child will find some things easier to master and others more challenging. Children often resist working at things they are not good at, or don’t come easily to them. This in turn can lead to pressure both from school and home, which then creates more resistance.



Children don’t always ask for help when they need it. Some feel ashamed to show they didn’t get what the teacher was explaining – especially if it seems that others did. Others may feel there is something wrong with them and try to hide it in various ways. Some may fool around, or seem inattentive, or even provoke others sitting next to them. These days, schools in particular are too quick to think in terms of attention deficit disorder.



Many times I have been asked to observe a child in school because of concerns about attention or behavior problems. As an experienced observer, it becomes clear that the child is having difficulty with the assignment and is either avoiding tackling it, or trying to cover up the difficulty.       



Author Joshua Henkin, recalls his early problems with vocabulary. Asked to define “adhere,” and thinking it was easy, he found he could not actually put it into other words. His father took a box of band-aids with the word “adhesive” printed across the front, saying, “They stick to you.” Henkin found that the meaning of the words then stuck to him.



Long ago, on a family trip to Hawaii, my young son, a new driver, drove our rented car from the airport to our destination. After a minute, he seemed to know exactly how to turn and go to get there. I asked him later how he was able to do that since it was the first time any of us had been there. He explained that he never has been able to know his right from left – as a young child he struggled with dyslexia – so when he gets somewhere new, the first thing he does is look for some way to orient himself. He quickly discovered here that the ocean was on one side, the mountains on the other, and he used that fact to guide him.



Later, I told this story in a talk about helping children with learning difficulties. Afterwards, a young woman told me that she had been raised and educated in Hawaii. There they were taught to think in terms of the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. What my son had figured out, had been used there as an educational tool.



These days, that approach is known as developing compensatory strategies. What that means is finding a way that works for a particular individual – another way to learn  material that is causing difficulty. This is where parents can be especially helpful because we know our own children best. If we pay attention to where they get stuck, we may discover what the sticking points are, and that can often help us find the kind of band-aid that will stick.



Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.

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