Friday, April 17, 2020

The Reluctant Learner

Let me be really clear. These are NOT bad kids, but usually just kids who either lack the necessary skills to complete the task and/or have an agenda that is somewhat different from ours. It is challenging to work with a reluctant learner. It can be stressful and taxing. We can lose our tempers, just out of frustration, often bringing out the beast in us or stressing us to the point to where we just want to give up. If you have a reluctant learner, this post is for you. 

I want to thank Dr. Charles Lambert from Western Washington University for helping with this information. 

This post addresses students who do have the required skills and the problem is purely motivational.That means that the student would rather give blood than participate in a learning activity, here are some things a family can do that might be helpful:

Ensure that the amount of work that you are requiring is a reasonable expectation. For instance, requiring five pages of multiplication before lunch might be unrealistic, requiring two pages might be more manageable and be met with much less resistance.

Think about using the Premack principal, often known as Grandma’s Rule. In a nutshell, the rule states that when you eat your vegetables then you get dessert. This rule is a little more complicated than that. Let me explain.

1.    The vegetables have to be a reasonable amount. It can’t be two big dinner-sized plates of broccoli. No amount of any kind of dessert, even his preferred favorite chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream, is going to make him eat two big plates of messy overcooked broccoli. This means that the task must be reasonable in relationship to the preferred activity.
2.    The type of dessert does matter. If he likes ice cream better than banana cream pie, and is offered the ice cream, he might eat the broccoli, if it’s a reasonable amount. He might still refuse the broccoli if he’s offered the pie, even though it’s a great dessert. This means that you want to carefully choose the type of the preferred activity. Something, he really wants, not necessarily something you think is wonderful or that others would like. Just ask him. 
3.    Eating the broccoli must come first. If for some reason, you give him ice cream without eating the broccoli then all bets are off.  Perhaps he throws himself on the floor and kicks and yells and you give him ice cream because you want him to shut up or conversely, perhaps you are in a good mood and you give ice cream because you feel magnanimous that day, then you have just taught him that ice cream is not contingent upon eating that nasty broccoli. Therefore, the message is that once you have determined the preferred activity then it must awarded in relation to broccoli all the time.
4.    And here’s the good news. If he eats broccoli before he eats dessert, then broccoli will become easier to eat in the long run, and he’ll end up eating more broccoli over a lifetime. The premise is that the more you do something, even if you don’t like it, the less you fight and the less traumatic it becomes.

Use specific praise instead of general praise. For example, instead of saying “good job,” say “nice working hard.” This gives specific information to the student about what they are doing well and can give information about what is important to you for later. 

Catch them being good. Sometimes, students do the right thing without even being told. Watch for the "good stuff" and provide positive reinforcement, "Nice job studying," and "I really like the way your work is so neat." Use specific praise. Also, remember that students need at least three positives to every negative or directive. 

Find reinforcers and use them in the following manner. The Tough Kid Book (Don’t let the title fool you. It’s a great book with solutions for many contingencies) suggests reinforcing immediately and frequently, using enthusiasm. It’s important to get eye contact and describe clearly what you want to see.

Use proximity. If you want the student to study quietly, then sit near them, not too close, and do a similar activity, such as paying bills. This has several advantages. First you are modeling the behavior you want to see in your student. Second, you are using proximity control to keep the student on task. Third, you are there to help if the student gets stuck. Fourth, by your presence, you are indicating that what they are doing is important to you.  

State in a positive manner. Most of us have a healthy aversion to the word “no.” For some reason this word rankles the hair on our spines, almost like waving a red flag in front of a bull. So, avoid as much as you can. Find other ways to get your point across as much as possible. Of course, events don’t always give you time to think of alternatives, and sometimes that word “NO” is very appropriate. 

Give as much control as possible. Everyone likes to be in control of their own lives. This goes for students also. Here’s an idea, give three tokens to use during study time. Each token can be worth a 10 minute break. Students can spend these three tokens anyway they see fit. But when the tokens run out, breaks are done. 

Create variety within the structure. Allow students to prioritize tasks. Have them create a list of what they will do first and then next. Have them check off on the list when they complete each task.

Use time wisely. Some students, especially the very young have a limited sense of time. This usually is just a result of inexperience. To them, ten minutes feels like two hours. Set up a countdown timer so that students can see elapsed time. That way they know that studying will not last forever. There are many, many types of timers on the internet that can work, some very cute and age appropriate, especially for little guys. There are also apps for the phone. In fact, most smart phones have an app that works for the older student. 

Reward system. To pay or not to pay a student for work is the question. Some families adhere to the idea that kids need to learn to complete tasks just because there are some things in life that need to get done, and people don’t get paid for everything they do. These families certainly have a point. Other families think that if it is really difficult for a child to complete a task, and if it is hard work, than rewards can be helpful in establishing good habits. After all, when you go to work, you do expect to get paid. These people also have a point. If you do decide to use a reward system, you want to make the reward reasonable. (I mean you don’t want to reward a student with a red convertible for doing his homework.) Make sure that you Involve the student with the type of reward that they would prefer and it is mutually agreed upon. Also, make sure that when the activity is done correctly you do reward. If you don’t pay attention to the reward in a timely manner, or if you delay the reward to a more convenient time, the reward will lose its power and the student will be less likely to comply. Immediacy is the key. 

Being positive and rewarding is much more powerful than taking things away or punishment. Kids have a unique sense of fairness, and if their sense of fairness is violated, it can be a problem. Furthermore, unreasonable expectations can be problematic. For example, if you don’t do your homework, you lose TV for two weeks.” They will see that as having no way out, and not comply at all. They are likely to feel that it is useless and cannot live up to the expectation, in effect, already losing.

Break things into component parts. Sometimes we take a bigger bite than we can chew. So, break things into smaller pieces. For example, on a math sheet with 15 problems, you can say, “Do problems one through five and then let’s check,” or “Let’s come back to this next part later.” 

I hope these ideas are helpful. There are several websites designed for educators, that might have workable solutions with some ideas that are appropriate for use by parents.  Here is one site that might prove useful.

Remember also, that no matter how much we may want to, especially during certain challenging phases, that yelling does not usually work, at least not most of the time, except to blow off steam and make everyone run for cover. 

I invite comments, suggestions, ideas. 

If you have questions that I might be able to answer generally, please email me. Please keep in mind that this blog is for suggestions that may or may not work. Here is the disclaimer, professional advice requires much more in-depth information and contact and is beyond the scope of this blog.  email:

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