How to Survive a Learning Plateau
- Friday, September 03, 2010
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?
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