Hello parents, teachers and specialists. When it comes to working with students with learning differences (a.k.a. learning disabilities, a.k.a. learning difficulties), you may have heard me mention the Goldilocks standard before. That’s when you work with your child at a level that optimizes success. Not too easy. Not too difficult. Just right.
The Goldilocks Standard
We don’t just apply this idea to students who struggle to learn, either. In an article written to support student mental health, author David Tow writes:
“Instead of constructing a classroom environment that operates at 100 percent difficulty all the time, consider alternate models that allow students to feel supported and competent first —and then consciously and explicitly ratchet up the difficulty and complexity as appropriate.”
I wholeheartedly support this strategy. While some students may thrive on the challenge, or thrive on extra pressure, pushing beyond what any child is capable of causes enough stress as it is. Pushing beyond what a child with learning differences is capable of only serves to reinforce that student’s misconception of incompetence.
Signs of Stepping Out of the Zone
What are some signs that you aren’t staying within your child’s ideal learning zone? See if any of these reactions sound familiar:
- shutting down
- acting out
- responding with “I don’t know” constantly, which is another form of shutting down
- dreading and resisting anything that may feel like work
- fear of failure
Perfectionism goes hand in hand with fear of failure. Of course, it may be a habit that your child developed over time, not a reaction to working outside of the Goldilocks’ standard on any particular activity. As you work with your child, or simply observe your child working, be on the lookout for perfectionism all the same. Your child may be so concerned with getting the answer correct that she starts refusing to try something new and unfamiliar.
What should you do when you observe perfectionism? Don’t freak out and view this as a terrible thing. Instead, celebrate that you just discovered an important clue. Hooray! You are now in a better position to help your child. You now know that it’s time to start an activity, any activity, that is ridiculously easy. Then increase the difficulty until you find your child’s optimum learning zone.
Build the skill. Build confidence. Then gradually increase the challenge to create even more opportunities for success.
Isn’t that counterintuitive?
If your child reads and learns far below the level of his peers, you may be thinking to yourself that going easy on your child feels counterintuitive. Shouldn’t your child be pushing more, not less, in order to catch up? As a parent, aren’t you doing a disservice to your child by not asking your child to “work harder?”
While this may seem like a logical conclusion, the answer is no. Absolutely not. Expecting your child to “work harder” does absolutely nothing to strengthen underdeveloped cognitive abilities. And if it leads to overwhelm, which then causes your child to shut down and refuse to try, you are working against your efforts. Instead, find that zone that challenges your child just enough. You will encounter much less resistance, which will not only be a relief to you and your child, but more importantly will allow your child to develop those important foundation skills.
I invite you to adopt the Goldilock’s standard as your new mantra. Say it with me now. Not too easy. Not too difficult. Juuuust right.
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