Ever since I first heard of Dr. Selznick’s book, The Shut-Down Learner, I have been in contact with this amazing educator!   Reading it has changed my perspective on many of my students.  @DrSelz has devoted his career to helping children who struggle in school  find their way to success and realize their potential.  Here, he describes a commonality found in these children – a creative talent.  ~EMP

Creative Children – Struggling in School

In my assessment work as a child psychologist, there is always a point in the testing of a child, where I like to go in with the parents to offer a preliminary impression.  During that time, I usually invite the child to become engaged in an independent activity such as drawing on the whiteboards or playing with the different figures in the office.

With Emily, a fourth grader struggling greatly in school, she responded quite positively and enthusiastically to the notion of coloring on the board.  After talking to her parents for about 15 minutes I return to Emily and am struck by the elaborate drawing that she has created in this short time.  Flowers, trees, houses and animals are interacting in a creative, lively scene.  Emily’s parents are called in to the room and I try and make a big “splash” over the drawing.  After previously struggling through some of the reading, spelling and writing tasks, it is great to leave a child like Emily on such a positive note.

Matthew, age 7, is also struggling in school.  Stuck in the early stages of reading development, Matthew’s parents are extremely concerned about him even though the school has not raised any issues.  After testing him, I understand why they are concerned.  Barely able to blend three and four letter sounds in simple word patterns, Matthew is starting to feel that others around are rapidly accelerating past him.  “There are some kids in my class reading chapter books,” he tells me in exasperation.  When I return to Matthew after discussing the results with his parents, he has constructed a small city out of Legos, colored blocks, animal figures, people and match box cars.  “What an imagination,” I shout out to Matthew.  “Can I take a picture of the scene?”  Matthew beams with pride, forgetting for the moment that an hour ago he was unable to read the easiest of first grade passages.

Scott, a sophomore in high school brings his guitar in to show me his “chops.”   His talent is obvious as he starts to play some pieces that he has written.   Too bad Scott is in danger of failing out of high school, having received three F’s and two D’s, and he is threatening to drop out of school by the end of the year.  Interacting with Scott it is hard to imagine how this incredibly social and pleasant young man is in such tough straits in school.  Upon evaluating Scott I see that he maintains a subtle problem with reading that has gone unrecognized all of his school years.  Large words such as philanthropist, instigate, multitude and names were very problematic for him, resulting in his reading in a stilted and strained manner upon listening to him.  Since most reading from fourth grade forward is conducted silently, very few of his teachers would have understood the problem.  “I hate reading and writing is even worse,” Scott tells me.  “I can’t stand all the worksheets they give me, so I just don’t do them.  I don’t care.  I’m just going to play guitar.”

Amy, age 17, is one of those kids whose style and physical presence grabs attention wherever she goes.  From her dyed hair, layers of jewelry and quirky clothes combinations, she is one of the most stylish kids that I have seen.  Amy has always had a flair for fashion.  Sadly, she was rejected two years earlier from one of the local technical school high school programs because of a combination of weak grades and poor standardized test scores.  A tough and difficult child, if Amy can finish high school, she would like to attend a post-secondary fashion school in Philadelphia.  With a lot of tutoring support, she may make it.

These are all children I have come to call “Shut-Down Learners.”  They have a myriad of strengths, usually in creative endeavors, yet their school struggling is causing much anguish in their families.

Common Themes

All of these children are quite different, yet there are themes binding them.  The traits that these children share includes a propensity for tasks that are largely visual or creative, while they struggle with tasks that are the core of their school experiences – reading, spelling and writing.   Largely misunderstood, these children are usually seen as lacking motivation for school. The continual interpretation of “they just don’t care and aren’t trying hard enough” is repeated by parents and teachers as the usual explanation as to why they are not doing well. Over the years parents have reacted from their own anxiety and frustration with a combination of yelling, punishing, and removing privileges, usually with little success.

If you are a parent of a child who is a “Lego kid,” or who can draw beautifully, does that mean he or she will automatically be struggling in school?  Of course not.  It is my experience, though, having assessed and interacted with thousands of children in my career, that such children should be watched closely particularly in the early years.

Signs to Watch

What are some signs that you should be considering:

  • In the early grades, is reading a difficult and painful chore?
  • When asked to perform open-ended writing tasks (e.g., write about your weekend), do you observe a great deal of avoidance?
  • Is the child’s written output very poorly completed?
  • In later grades, does your child interact in the classroom like there is no oxygen in the room?
  • In your gut as the child’s mother (ok, fathers too), do you believe that there is something wrong, even though schools and other professionals are dismissing this notion?

Supportive Classrooms/Keeping Child Connected

What do these children need in the classroom?  It is too simple to say that they need a “visual style of learning.”  All interactions are multisensory, involving visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile stimuli.  However, it is helpful to recognizing that these children are readily overwhelmed and overloaded by too much language, both in its written and spoken form.  Scan the text before the child reads and look for words that you think will be difficult.  Helping him or her with these difficult words would be enormously helpful and supportive to the child.

Encouraging the child to draw a small picture next to larger, more complex vocabulary words would also help the visual-style child not feel so overwhelmed. Combining this strategy with teaching how to take notes in a more visually graphic and web-like manner would also be helpful.

Above all, it is the supportive relationship that can be developed between the teacher and the struggling child that provides enormous “emotional fuel” to go in the depleted tank of the “Shut-Down Learner.”    Helping the child to value his or her considerable strengths while not overlooking the weaknesses is the essence of good classroom support.  For example, a teacher seeing a child such as Amy looking disconnected in class, may take her off to the side and say something like, “Amy, I want you to know how impressed I am with the way you put yourself together and the fashion drawings you have shown me.  You have incredible potential.  But we need to try and help you stay connected in class.  I know reading is tough for you, so you and I are going to work out a way to work together, so you don’t feel any embarrassment and can get through the reading.  How does that sound?”

In summary, watch for signs that your creative, artistic and visually-based children may not be able to keep up with the demands of school.  While there are no simple magic solutions, offering straightforward emotional support and understanding goes a long way to keeping the child connected. Valuing strengths while working on weaknesses should be in the forefront of parents’ and teachers’ minds.

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