How does he know he’s gay? He never dated any girls in high school.
Maybe the reason he never dated any girls in high school is because he’s gay. Imagine spending your whole life pretending to be that which you are not. It’s the same for cognitive ability. Envision being bludgeoned with “he’s so smart,” when the reality is different in your own mind. Only marginally worse than being battered with how blindingly brilliant you are is being told, “you’re stupid.” There are any number of reasons why bright kids underperform: Learning differences can mask ability; executive functioning issues can undermine grades; a discrepancy between verbal and processing speed sub tests on the WISC can indicate output failure; emotional turmoil can sabotage motivation. Slamming a kid with “he’s so smart, he only needs to work harder” denies that these other issues exist, that the child isn’t who he says he is.
A ten-year-old girl gets off her bicycle and enters a pet store. Approaching the elderly proprietor she says, “I’d like to buy a bunny, pleath.”
The owner smiles and says, “Very well, young lady. And how much would you like to spend on the bunny?”
“I have thicteen dollars,” she replies.
“Sixteen dollars is more than enough for a bunny,” the owner says. “Would you like to purchase a white bunny or a brown bunny?”
“I don’t think my thnake will give a thit,” she says.
We are at a disadvantage when we don’t perceive who our children actually are. Apparently the ten-year-old in the above dialogue is into snakes, not bunnies. Good to know. We assume she wants a pet bunny. At our peril.
Sometimes the kid just needs to put down the violent video game and pick up the math book. Academic success frequently follows. But sometimes we have to ask why the kid picked up the violent video game in the first place. Maybe the math class was just too hard to begin with. Maybe he didn’t have the proper background. Maybe he was enrolled in pre-calculus without a proper foundation of pre-algebra. Maybe he was taking the advanced course because—stop me if you have figured out where I’m going with this—he had been told his entire @#$%&*! life how @#$%&*! smart he was.
Sure there are some students who just need to study more in order to achieve. But there are more students who are overwhelmed, stressed, cheating, and self-medicating because nobody is listening to them. “I’m just not that good at math,” they shout. “If I could understand that log ½ 8 = -3, then I would.”
Faced with intractable curriculum, of course the kids act out. Nobody wants to be ignored, denied, marginalized. Nobody wants to be called a liar. Certainly nobody wants to be called a liar regarding a fundamental belief about themselves.
“I can’t do the math.”
“Yes, you can.”
Nah. If I could do it, I would. Nobody ever got any warm fuzzies by failing deliberately. People are generally doing the best they can.
There are some students who say, “I almost quit, but my parents believed in me and now I understand logarithms” There are more children who say, “I was so tired of hearing ‘you could do this if you really wanted to’ that I dropped the books and picked up some bad habits.” The alternative explanation—that kids choose to do poorly–is unlikely. The corollary—that the kids don’t know what happens to students who underperform in school—even more so. “That kid down the block flunked out of college and now can’t get a job? Never seen that before.” Words no student ever spoke.
Here’s the worst of it: Kids would prefer to be seen as Incorrigible rather than incompetent. Poor grades are frequently the cause of not the result of behavioral issues. Students who talk in class rather than pay attention certainly end up with poor grades. But kids who don’t understand what’s going on are more likely to stop attending to lectures. Listening to our kids allows them to be who they are. Being told you’re a capable student when you’re not is as pleasant, helpful, and effective as being told you’re straight when you’re not. Communicating “you’re not who you are” or “you’re not who I want you to be” is a brutal message.