Today’s article was written to help families who have a son or daughter who is struggling in school. I’ve decided to use my own “school struggles” so that I can make this point: Children who are having difficulty in school can now be helped.

Unlike students — such as myself — who went to school in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s and who suffered from the deep humiliation of academic failure, the children of today have the hope that regardless of the problems they experience, each and every obstacle that stands in their way of academic success can now be identified.

FIRST GRADE: From the time my feet first stepped into a classroom, up until my junior year in high school, the entire process of school — homework, spelling words, tests, reading books — was an uphill battle. In first grade, when I was learning to read, my mind could not hold more than a handful of words. (Psychologists now call this skill “working memory.” Working memory is like a desktop, where new data can be held, or memorized, for later use.)

When I read, my mind grew restless and, like a school of silver minnows being chased by a hungry bass, the words I read scattered, and my mind zipped into colorful caverns of childhood daydreams, which were much more fun than books about Spot the dog.

SECOND GRADE: I learned to read, but I raced through paragraphs, took shortcuts with homework, and always became frustrated when a school task, such as math, required sustained effort. Besides working memory, I did not develop two other key cognitive skills — the ability to tolerate frustrations and impulse control — until much later in life.

However, when I was a child, these three key cognitive skills were unknown and therefore, had no names. This meant that my school struggles would be explained in an altogether different way: “Your son (my teacher is talking to my mother) is careless and he rushes through his work. He never reads directions, so he fails tests. He is not motivated, his handwriting is sloppy and unreadable, and he is so immature.”

Impulse control (IC) acts like a red stop sign, and is located in the frontal lobes of the brain. IC tells the child to: Stop, slow down, think before you act. My IC developed slowly, and so did its sibling, poor frustration tolerance. So, let’s put it all together. Three critical cognitive skills are developing slowly: working memory, frustration tolerance and impulse control.

Now, put these three delayed skills inside the brain of a willful boy and guess what you get? A hunter. I excelled at fishing, hunting, butterfly catching, rock skipping and exploring. All of these activities fit a child who has poor impulse control.

Hunters require lightning fast reflexes and instant responses. That was me. Did you know that school was not designed for hunters? It’s more for gatherers, or growers, who can carefully plan out an activity and do it.

JUNIOR HIGH, HIGH SCHOOL: As I climbed the ladder of school, my grades fell. Worse, with the exception of one notable event (in the conclusion), I never felt smart. As my grades sank down deeper, my father took drastic measures: I was sent to a military academy.

MILITARY ACADEMY: The intensive structure, combined with dedicated teachers, allowed me to do well in school. My grades soared, but the underlying problems I had (poor impulse control, rapid frustration) persisted. I found other ways to overcome my skill deficits: flash cards used 20-50 times a day gave me better memory (psychologists call this “over-learning”). I made my own practice tests and quizzes. I discovered that the best time to learn was from 4-6 a.m., so I studied each morning before classes. Eventually, I would conquer the battles of school.

CONCLUSION: The struggles I had in school taught me three lessons:

1. If your child is not doing well in school, there is a reason.

2. The reason is this: A key developmental skill is lagging, or undeveloped.

3. Treatment has one goal: Locate the lagging skill and fix it.

Kids who fail in school are at risk for failure in life. If hope is removed from their young hearts, they give up, and the world moves on without them. Despite the hardships I had in school, I never lost hope that someday, somehow, I’d be a good student. Where did my hope come from?

When I was 7, my parents took me out of school so we could take a vacation in Florida. Every morning, after a short walk to the ocean, my mother taught me how to multiply and divide numbers. Using a stick of driftwood to write upon the wet sand, she gave me a learning experience where I felt smart and successful, and that made all the difference.

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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