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Educator's Job Is to Assess Strengths, not Weaknesses

Eliminate the “curse words”

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My son has struggled in school since the fourth grade. Before that, he was a good student and his teachers loved him. Slowly, schoolwork became more difficult for him and everything went downhill… He has been called everything - unmotivated, class clown, lazy, careless. For years, I've fought with him and punished him. Now he is in eighth grade and we have been told that the school district demands that all students be categorized as college bound or due to performance, be placed on a technology/vocational track for high school. We asked he be tested but this was rejected because his grades are not low enough. All these years, teacher after teacher said he could do it if he wanted to, but now they want to make the decision that he isn't college material. Where did it go wrong? Why was he considered one of the best students in his early grades?

Ashley B.

Tulsa, OK

Dear Ashley:

Almost all parents are at one time or another caught up in the illusion of having a “perfectly normal child.” Yet no one is perfect. Every adult has both strengths and weaknesses, and your child is no exception. What you have instead discovered is that you have a “perfectly unique child,” which is not quite the same thing! A parent who is determined to hold onto the former belief that your child will be good at everything can only keep the fallacy of this illusion alive until their child begins their scholastic career. At this time the idea of across the board perfection will fade when the child’s unique quirks and interests and talents begin to manifest.

ASSESSMENT

Every child can be insulted and every child has a weakness that can be found. Both underscore the tendency to focus on the negative and "victimize the victim." By victimize, I mean to blame a student for what he doesn't seem to know how to do, hasn't fully learned to do, or doesn't understand why he must do it.

No child goes to school expecting to be chastised, made fun of, insulted, put down, punished or called a failure. However, no child on his way to school already knows everything that is yet to be taught. Too often, we assume the skills to learn something the first time it is taught (instead of continuing to teach until the child is successful.) When the child proves he needs more teaching, we blame the child's attitude, his performance or both when he fails to measure up to our simplistic and presumed ideas about his or her “potential.”

When insults and punishment fail to produce positive results, we go looking for weaknesses and resort to testing to determine, ‘‘what is wrong with this child?”

In some cases that is a legitimate medical question, but the medical question is not the educator's question. It is the educator's job to find out "What is right about this child?” Once this is determined, the next questions should logically be “How do I use the strengths that this child already has to make up for his weaknesses? What sort of strategy can we use to accomplish this?"

Your child's educational life is not over. In fact, it is just beginning. His grades in high school will determine his choices for college or vocational school. Stop the pessimism by reinventing the language that you use: Every child can be praised and every child has a strength that can be found!

WHAT TO DO

In working with children, I start from the premise that they desire to be respected, cared for, nurtured and taught. I start by throwing out what I call “the curse words.” Some of these are mentioned in your letter as being used to describe your son. Those words reflect attitudes and actions that we'd never condone for our adult peers. Just consider:

A child misses problems on a work sheet and is called "careless." An adult who fails to balance his checkbook makes a “simple human mistake.”

A child makes a low grade on a test and receives this note on his paper: “You weren't paying attention.” An adult has a problem with a new computer program and is able to call the "Help Desk" for further explanation.

After I leave the insults behind me, then I focus on the child’s strengths, not on weaknesses. I must be willing to ask the educator's question: “What is right about you?” I feel this honors each child's uniqueness.

In your letter, go back and look at the attributes you chose to focus on. You speak of your son's weaknesses, but not his strengths. This is to be avoided, lest this language become a self fulfilling prophecy, as your son will ultimately agree with others’ reviews of him and comes to the conclusion: “Okay, I am unmotivated, lazy, and careless.”

Perhaps he is creative and should never memorize definitions from a book, but instead rewrite them in his own words.

Perhaps he loves music and can turn a history lesson into lyrics for a new ballad, or learns best by listening and needs to hear himself a few times. Perhaps he loves to build things and take things apart, skills that will serve him well when he realizes that building depends on variables, constants, measurements, geometric forms, coefficients and exponents that otherwise seem meaningless in math and in life.

Perhaps he can charm anyone and bluff his way through anything. He can therefore read people and strategically determine how to greet new situations, all the while anticipating success. This child could do the same with his studies if someone would show him how to be as strategic with his grade goals as he is with people.

In order to honor your child's uniqueness, first you must be willing to look for it, and then use his strengths to make learning relevant to his life. Until you chart a positive path instead of a negative one, any decisions you make about the route to take in his future are premature. The ultimate goal is not to determine where he will go after high school but to determine what he plans to do to turn his interests into a career.

CONTACT DR. FOURNIER

Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at [email protected].

 

More Stories By Dr. Yvonne Fournier

Dr. Yvonne Fournier is Founder and President of Fournier Learning Strategies. Her column, "Hassle-Free Homework" was published by the Scripps Howard News Service for 20 years. She has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. Dr. Fournier, arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today, has followed her own roadmap, calling not just for change or improvement in education but for an entirely new model.

She remains one of the most controversial opponents of the current education system in America.