David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Making A Difference

Here’s a controversial sentence I bet you didn’t think you’d read in a column written by a person who studied developmental psychology in graduate school, has dedicated his life to education, and makes his living giving advice to parents about how to bring up healthy kids.

For many neurotypical kids, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what you do as parents.

For kids who “get it,” for kids who learn quickly and efficiently, for kids who have both the horses (ability) and the whip (motivation), it doesn’t make all that much difference what the teachers do. (I’m ignoring worksheets and other forms of abuse here.) It doesn’t make that much difference what the parents do. (Again, I’m ignoring abusive suggestions including “Put down that book, it’s time to play video games and smoke pot.”) For kids who CAN, as long as we don’t actively discourage, they do pretty well. Not that genes are destiny, but can you even give me that NAME of one of John Havilcek’s coaches or Albert Einstein’s teachers?

I didn’t think so.

I could have coached John Havilcek–and I don’t know a pick and roll from a Kaiser roll. I could have taught Einstein and I don’t know a muon from a moo cow. “Go play,” I would have told both Havilcek and Einstein and they would have achieved in spite of, not because of, my ability and insight as a coach or teacher. For talented athletes and super-able students, practice may make perfect, but the process is easier if you have a silk purse rather than a pig’s ear to begin with. (It is said, by the way, that Einstein’s teachers were anything but encouraging. Did he succeed because of or in spite of their advice?)

Parents claim credit for their high achieving kids. It’s painful to me to hear this tripe. At the risk of being accused of sounding negative and critical–Moi?–I have to point out the absurdity of the following claim:

“MY daughter has 99th percentile test scores,” says mom at a party. This sentence is inevitably followed by a conspiratorial wink as if a stock tip about an IPO were forthcoming. “We READ to her when she was a child.” The implication–that the parents of all those other children didn’t think to pick up a copy of Fox in Socks is too offensive to refute. You read to your child? Good for you. Here’s a cookie.

The issue here is “can’t” versus “won’t”. A child who CAN put down her math book in order to pick up on her reading assignments, may certainly be encouraged to do so so that she is exposed to proper doses of both magisteria. I revel in how much fun it is to teach those able children; I love inspiring their curiosity, engaging their ability to make inferences, connect disparate topics, pull together across disciplines. Who wouldn’t want to teach such kids?

But those kids who excel across the board and who can change from one discipline to another don’t need me all that much. Left in a sparsely furnished room with an organic chemistry book and a loaf of stale bread, they emerge with chapters memorized ready to take on the world.

I am much more interested in the child who CAN’T learn. Not to be confused with the kid who WON’T engage in and take responsibility for his learning. A child who, despite our best efforts, continues to have trouble with math SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO MOVE ON TO SOMETHING ELSE. Quite frankly, if I were locked in a room and told that I could come out when I learned to speak conversational French, well, let’s just say that my heirs and assigns would be pretty pleased, because I would drop dead of starvation and fatigue before I got past “la plume de ma tante”. I’m a nice guy. But I have no head for language acquisition.

Those of you who have never failed at anything, those of you who succeed where ever and whenever you put your mind to something, what do you think about the rest of us? Do you think we WANT to get lost? Do you think we’re CHOOSING to have trouble in school? Do you think we’re PLEASED about not being able to remember what seven times nine is? Do you think we’re HAPPY about being held back, laughed at, and derided by our teachers, classmates, and parents?

We’re acting out BECAUSE OF our learning differences. If we could learn the way you do, we would. Believe us. We see your awards for Student of the Month. We know how much better your lives are. We hear you when you say that you only had to study for an hour and you got an A anyway. We studied for three hours and got a lousy C. Again.

In the meantime, please let us learn something. Let us achieve where we can. Let us do a little more math and a little less language. Or the reverse. Comparing us to neurotypical kids helps no one. It makes us feel like we CHOSE to have the brains we have. You remind us of the teacher who said…

“If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

For those of us who don’t learn everything easily, it DOES matter what our teachers do. We need to be allowed to learn how we learn best. And if we’re stuck on one subject, please do allow us to learn something else.

Otherwise, just go back to helping those kids who don’t need your help, pretending that what you do for them makes all the difference.



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