The Struggling Learner Scenario: Afraid to Learn

Is being afraid to learn even a thing?  I was surprised, too.  I share the following scenario from my own personal experience.  Note: This is the third scenario in a five-part blog series.  If you’d like to start from the beginning, read The Struggling Learner Scenario #1.


Scenario #3: When I started working with this 6th grade student she was reading and learning well below her grade level.  Through our work together she began to experience multiple lightbulb moments.  It was exhilarating for us both. Whenever something clicked for her I could see it in her eyes.  She answered a question correctly, or read a word she hadn’t recognized before, and the pride in her face was undeniable.

One day, a previously confusing concept clicked for her.  Her eyes had that familiar look of recognition.  Instead of eagerly providing the correct answer, though, she shut down on me.  Her shoulders dropped.  Her eyes dropped.  Then she looked up at me as if reading my face, wondering if I believed her when she flatly said, “I don’t know.”  I offered a little encouragement, a little gentle prodding, but she fully committed to her story.  Again, no eye contact… “I don’t know.”

What just happened?


Yes, I did consider the possibility that maybe she truly didn’t know the answer, that she shut down out of embarrassment or shame.  Unfortunately I did read her physical reaction correctly the first time.


Close-up of young girl covering mouth with hand and holding colored pencils. Caption above the image reads: The Struggling Learner Scenario: Afraid to Learn.


The Backstory

My student, we’ll call her Kelly, had two very fierce advocates as parents.  The local school district did not provide the services that Kelly needed, so her parents fought until the schools paid for private help.


They didn’t just settle for any kind of private help.  They sought out the BEST help for their child.  The best help turned out to be the very unique learning center where I worked.


Did it matter that the learning center was 2 ½ hours away?  Nope.  These parents were determined to do WHATEVER was necessary to help Kelly have a brighter future.


During the summer, Kelly began an “intensive” program at the learning center.  This involved 3 different instructors, for 3 hours a day, every day, for 3 weeks.


[Side note: We only recommend this type of training for older students who can clearly handle the intensity.]


So, Kelly and her mom woke up at the crack of dawn, drove 2 ½ hours, stayed in town for 3 hours as Kelly focused on improving her cognitive abilities, and drove back home for another 2 ½ hours.  Then they did it all again the next day, and the next day, and the next.


The entire team and I celebrated every breakthrough, every tiny or monumental step forward.  Kelly and her mom did, too.


That’s why, when she shut down on me, I was perplexed.


Identity Shift

A member of my team helped me understand what I hadn’t yet learned back then.  When a non-reader becomes a reader, everything changes.  We naturally assume that the changes are all positive.  The child is far more capable than ever before.  The future looks brighter.  A child’s entire personality can shift into someone more outgoing, more confident, more ready to tackle life’s challenges.


So far so good, right?


So who on earth would be afraid to learn?


Someone whose identity is wrapped up in being a non-reader, that’s who.


Remember Kelly’s parents, who went to battle for her every day?  Keep in mind, Kelly had a number of siblings at home who weren’t necessarily getting the same kind of attention that Kelly was.  Her needs took priority.


What happens, then, when Kelly doesn’t need the extra help anymore, when she becomes an independent learner capable of the same kinds of tasks that everyone else is capable of?


First of all, she loses her parents’ passionate fight for her, which in her mind, may look a lot like losing their love.  If that wasn’t scary enough, other people’s expectations of her change as well.


Let’s say that you’re a kid whose parents and teachers bend over backwards to make things easier for you.  They don’t expect you to read, or spell, or turn in complete homework assignments.  Sure, you work hard as a non-reader, but that type of hard work is something you’re familiar with.  It’s almost second nature.


Once you become a reader, the hard work you do in school is suddenly foreign.  You’re not used to this.  Dare I say, you almost think that struggling to read and learn is easier than measuring up to these new expectations that people have of you.  What if you disappoint everyone?  What if you let them down?


Growth Can Be Bumpy

My team and I had some candid heart-to-hearts with Kelly.  Mom and Dad were kept in the loop as well.


My message to you then, dear parents and educators, if you ever start noticing this type of resistance in your own child or student, do not fear the fear.  Transitioning into a strong, confident learner can sometimes be scary.  Scary, and thrilling, and nerve-wracking, and exhilarating, and perhaps back to scary again.


Keep going anyway.  It’s so worth the bumpy ride!


Want to read the rest of the series?

#1) The Struggling Learner Scenario: Poor Handwriting

#2) The Struggling Learner Scenario: Can’t Sit Still

#3) The Struggling Learner Scenario: Afraid to Learn

#4) The Struggling Learner Scenario: Intervention Doesn’t Stick

#5) The Struggling Learner Scenario: Sounds Out Every Word