Books, assessment products and training programs for ADHD and related problems
Books, assessment products and training programs for ADHD and related problems

Overcoming Underachieving: Understanding Children's School Problems

Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.

School problems of children usually cannot be resolved quickly or cured with a magic potion. Instead they are often chronic and require regular management. To be effective, however, parents and teachers must first understand how children learn. What skills are required for school success? How do strengths or weaknesses in particular skills affect a childís mastery of particular subjects? Often the reasons a child struggles at school may be very different from the reasons another child struggles. It is important, however, to take the time to understand the underlying factors that contribute to these struggles rather than hastily shifting focus to grades or achievement levels. Over many years of working with children, my colleague, Dr. Nancy Mather at the University of Tucson, and I have developed a framework for understanding why children experience problems in learning. We call this framework the "building blocks of leaning."
†††† There are ten blocks of learning, each of which contains a set of related learning skills. The blocks can be divided into three distinct groups which then stack together to form a pyramid. At the ground level of the pyramid are the four foundational blocks: attention/impulse control, emotions and behavior, self-esteem and the learning environment. The middle level contains the three processing blocks: visual, auditory and motor. The top level contains the three thinking blocks: language and images, and completing the pyramid strategies. As you will read, some of these blocks are more important than others for certain types of learning.

The Foundational Blocks
†††† We refer to these as the foundational blocks because they provide the support system for all learning. Just as the foundation of a building must be strong enough to support the entire structure erected upon it, these four blocks must be strong enough to provide support for further learning to occur. The ability to pay attention is basic to all learning. Skills in the block of attention/impulse control allow children to focus on the relevant requirements of a learning task. The blocks of emotions and self-esteem contribute to how a child feels about himself or herself as well as to a willingness to stick to tasks until they are completed successfully. The environmental block concerns providing the child with a safe, supportive, appropriate climate for learning at home and in school. To succeed in learning a child requires efficient attention and impulse control, healthy emotions, a positive attitude towards self and learning and a loving, consistent, supportive environment.
†††† Strengths in the foundational blocks help children learn to compensate for lesser abilities and to persist in the face of difficulties. Strong foundational block skills, however, do not guarantee that children will avoid all school difficulties. Weaknesses within the processing or thinking blocks also affect school performance.

The Processing Blocks
†††† On the second level of the building blocks of learning are those involved with the processing of information through sight, hearing and touch. These are what educators refer to as the visual, auditory and motor skills. These skills facilitate learning and enable children to perform tasks that tend to be secretarial in nature, such as hearing and writing down assignments, taking notes or recognizing words. The skills in the processing blocks allow children to take in information, to discern itís various pieces, to memorize and to perform tasks involving symbolic learning such as the concept that a digit stands for a number of objects. Once children master these processing skills, they usually do not have to spend very much time during learning tasks concentrating upon these. For example, after learning to recognize a word in print, a child will usually recognize it automatically when it is encountered in the future.
†††† Children struggling with learning in the early elementary grades often experience difficulty in one or more of these processing blocks. In fact, weaknesses in the auditory block account for the majority of children experiencing problems learning phonics. Yet other children may experience problems with visual tasks, such as those involved in remembering what a word looks like. Another may struggle to place letter sounds in correct order to spell a word. Still another may do poorly with the motor aspects of learning such as cutting, forming letters with a pencil or drawing. As with the foundational blocks, a child with adequate processing skills will be able to perform various tasks but these skills alone do not guarantee school success. They do, however, guarantee that children will often master basic academic skills well in the early grades.

The Thinking Blocks
†††† At the top of the pyramid the thinking blocks include skills related to language,images and strategies. Thinking with language involves understanding spoken and written language, expressing ideas in reading and writing and learning vocabulary. Thinking with images involves reproducing complex patterns, understanding and judging visual relationships and reasoning with mathematics. Finally, thinking with strategies involves the ability to think about your thinking. This includes the abilities to plan, organize, monitor and evaluate on an on going basis. The skills in the thinking blocks help children understand meanings, comprehend relationships and apply previously gained knowledge as they perform school tasks. For example, these skills help children read to learn. Before writing a story or a report, a child must brainstorm and organize relevant information. To solve a word problem in mathematics a child must read the problem, sort the relevant information,decide what is being asked and perform the correct calculation.
†††† All tasks leading to school success depend upon the ability to sit still and concentrate and the motivation to keep trying. Certain types of tasks are highly related to the thinking blocks; other are more closely aligned with the processing blocks. Children who experience difficulties within the skills of the processing blocks experience different types of learning problems than children whose difficulties are with skills within the thinking blocks. Problems in both of these areas may be made worse by weaknesses in the foundational blocks. These variations occur because the foundational, processing and thinking skills play different roles in childrenís abilities to learn efficiently.
†††† With this model in mind, consider these two examples:

  • Josh, a first grader, comes from a supportive home. Josh has strengths in the foundational blocks of emotions, self-esteem, and environment. He experiences significant problems, however, in the foundational block of attention/impulse control. He experiences great difficulty paying attention to repetitive activities and those that are not immediately interesting. When his parents or teachers ask Josh to read, his eyes look everywhere but at the words. Throughout the day he often leaves tasks incomplete. Josh has strengths and weaknesses in the foundational blocks that affect school performance.
  • Amy, an eighth-grade student, is a whiz at mechanical tasks, but when it comes to spelling or copying from the blackboard in class she struggles. She is gifted in thinking with images, but experiences trouble with tasks involving visual processing, such as recognizing words. Amy has a lot to say but experiences difficulty with the secretarial aspects of writing. She has a strength in thinking with images but a weakness in the processing of visual symbols.

The building blocks of learning model provides a framework to evaluate, understand and, most importantly, efficiently utilize educational strategies to help every child overcome underachieving and experience school success.

Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., a neurodevelopmental psychologist, is a member of the faculty of the University of Utah and a nationally recognized expert in child development. He has published ten texts as well as numerous scientific articles, chapters and videos. Recent books for parents include Overcoming Underachieving: An Action Guide to Helping Your Child Succeed in School and Lonely, Sad and Angry: A Parentís Guide to Depression in Children and Adolescents. Recent clinical volumes include Managing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children (2nd Edition) and Handbook of Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Childhood.

Correspondence to Dr. Goldstein can be addressed c/o the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center, 230 South 500 East, Suite 100, Salt Lake City, Utah 84102, (801) 532-1484, FAX (801) 532-1486, e-mail: info@samgoldstein.com, website:† www.samgoldstein.com

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