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Melanie Hexter - Christian Homeschooling, Home Education

How to Survive a Learning Plateau

  • Melanie Hexter Home School Enrichment
  • 2010 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
How to Survive a Learning Plateau

I met a new-to-homeschooling family the other day at my child's sporting event. When the mother learned that I have homeschooled since 1999, she began to tell me her recent frustrations teaching her oldest child, a 7-year-old boy. I listened intently, realizing that I've experienced the same concerns with my own children, and they're similar to those I frequently hear from others. The concern is usually stated like this: "Ryan is stuck in his reading" or "Sophia isn't making progress on her multiplication tables."

Though I am not an expert on childhood learning, my experiences teaching my six children, ages sixteen to newborn, have convinced me of one thing: all children reach learning plateaus at various times during their schooling. In other words, there are seasons when a child's learning will level off, hold steady, and not progress—and that's OK because it's how God has made us.

Does this sound familiar to you? For a while, we're just cruising along in our schooling. Memorizing new phonics sounds or working one-digit division problems is no problem for my child. But then one day it all comes to a screeching halt. No matter how many times I explain it, my child just doesn't get the next concept.

For what seems like weeks, I pray for insight and question my child's level of effort. I try new methods, buy a new curriculum, attempt anything to teach the next concept and make it stick. Then I finally admit my troubles to a friend, ask her how she's handled teaching the topic, and try her approach for a week or a month. Still no learning progress, and now there are tears of frustration—both mine and my child's.

For weeks it seems we are at an impasse. Is he ever going to get it? How is he ever going to finish the textbook this year? What if there's something wrong with him? Maybe I'm not a good teacher and shouldn't be homeschooling anyway.

And then two, four, maybe eight months later, something clicks. The proverbial lightbulb turns on and he gets it! Just as suddenly as the brakes came on and our progress slowed, now he's blending sounds as he reads, writing his own sentences, or willingly working two-column division problems. Was it my brilliance as a teacher, a certain method, a willingness on his part to try harder, or a combination of all those factors that broke the log jam? My conclusion is none of the above!

It was just a matter of needing more time. My child was at a learning plateau.

A "learning plateau" is my term for what someone else might call a "developmental stage." My child's heart might have been willing to move on to the next, more difficult topic in math, but his brain wasn't there quite yet. No amount of amazing instruction on my part, no number of new curriculums, no fancy techniques could have accelerated his progress. My child simply wasn't ready, and that's normal.

I've read about developmental stages of learning. I took a class in college that taught me how a child's developing brain gradually moves from awareness of concrete objects in toddlerhood to ability to handle abstract thoughts, manipulate data, and use deductive reasoning by the teen years. But apply that gradual, stair-step approach of learning to my child and his next math lesson, and it's another story. The stages of growth hit home as an enormous challenge, a huge obstacle—or so it seems.

Any "we're stuck" plateau feels uncomfortable to a seasoned homeschooling mom like me. But how much more frustrating is it to a new homeschooling mother like the one I met, who may already be doubting her efforts or lacking confidence to teach her child? We all fear our children falling behind or our own efforts not measuring up. What if this plateau never ends? What if we never finish the third-grade math book? I'll be a teaching failure, and my child will never graduate from elementary school. What if the authorities, or my mother-in-law, find out?

In a public school or other institutional school setting, when a child hits a learning plateau, one of two things may happen. The classroom teacher may recognize his stagnancy at the current level and, in her desire to be helpful, refer him to a professional to be "diagnosed" with alphabet soup ("ADHD," perhaps). He is then labeled for a lifetime, and his entire academic future heads onto a different track. Another option is that the teacher, not sensing his learning plateau, plunges the class forward to learn a new concept, but my child will be left behind and may never recover enough to learn that concept, falling further and further behind in his learning.

Yet in my homeschool, my own experience with learning plateaus has taught me that they are a normal part of any child's learning and growth. I am there daily as his teacher to assess his progress and sense when it's necessary to stick with a concept or when it's all right to move on. When I see that my child is stuck, it's my cue to relax, lay aside my tendency to plow ahead to the next lesson or topic, and find fun ways to review past material. It's a chance to play games with my child to review previous concepts, read books or make our own, and learn about topics we are truly interested in until I get more cues that it's once again OK to move on.

For example, when one of my children shows that his multiplication facts aren't sticking in his mind, we take a break from studying math in a formal sense. I close the math books, forget my self-imposed schedule, and move to that child's timetable. For one of my children, that break lasted one month, for another a winter, for another six to nine months. Math games, here we come! We've played Yahtzee with the child as scorekeeper. We've done flash cards on the stairs, jumping to the next step with each correct answer. We've done computer drills and colorful matching games—whatever it takes to get those facts cemented once his brain is ready.

Way before I started homeschooling, Dr. Raymond Moore and his wife Dorothy wrote a book that connects to this idea of learning plateaus. New homeschoolers often haven't heard of it, because it was first published in 1975, but it might be worth the effort to get a copy and give it a read. Called Better Late Than Early, it summarized research to support the idea that children, especially boys, are often not ready for formal learning until the age of 8 or 10. Pushing ahead before then only results in frustration and discouragement because children are simply not ready to handle the material.

Dr. and Mrs. Moore advocate waiting until the child gains the maturity and logical skills needed for formal work.

The Moores contend that thanks to homeschooling's tutorial nature, "late" reading or "late" math skills are not a handicap in the home environment. While we homeschoolers are tabling the text-based instruction, we can learn at home by other means: asking questions, reading aloud, and observing the world around us.

Dr. and Mrs. Moore stress that this better-late-than-early approach can be especially important for boys, who quickly catch up to early readers both in reading speed and comprehension.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When my oldest son was young, I spent thirty agonizing minutes per day for two years teaching him his phonics sounds and trying to force him to read. Oh the misery I felt, and the frustration he endured! I didn't know to wait until he was more ready (at age 7, 8, or even later). I could have relaxed and spent just five minutes per day with him on the same concepts much later, like I've since done with my younger boys. Now 14 years old, he has grown into an enthusiastic, capable reader—really, in spite of my forceful, impatient efforts.

Just like I advised the young homeschooling mother I recently met, if you see that your child has reached a learning plateau, know that it's normal. No amount of comparison with other children or sticking to a curriculum can rush his development. May I suggest that you be patient, wait on the Lord's timing, and enjoy this stage of learning without trying to force progress before that child is ready? You'll find that natural development is well worth waiting for! 


Melanie Hexter and her husband, Matthew, just celebrated their 20th anniversary.  Though not on their radar when they married, God led them to homeschool their six children, and it's now a way of life for their family. They offer an annual workshop to families considering homeschooling and welcome your questions. Contact them at www.LemiloePublishing.com.

This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Sign up now to receive a FREE sample copy! Just click here: http://homeschoolenrichment.com/magazine/request-sample-issue.html