I believe everyone struggles with at least one school subject at some point in their life. For me it was, and always will be, mathematics. As a homeschooled student, I was in “class” from about 8:00am until 2:00pm every day with a half hour to hour lunch, and two of those 6.5 hours of class were always spent on math. Long division, algebra, geometry and fractions all equally confounded me, and every math lesson was a drawn-out battle as I grappled with the formulae and fought to make sense out of what was essentially a foreign language to me. There were several social and emotional factors that came into play every time I opened a math textbook, including the “fight or flight” syndrome. First, I would argue with my mother about the lesson and why I had to know all of this “useless stuff” (the fight). After she would win the argument, I would be so worked up that I mentally shut down (the flight). I literally could not figure out the answers to the problems. Then my mother would have to help me out every step of the way until I was calm and confident enough to answer the remaining questions on my own. When it came to math, I had developed learned helplessness—the belief children have “based on repeated failures that their efforts to learn will be ineffective and they must rely on others to help them” (Gunning, 42).
As I read pages 42-46 of chapter two, I found myself sympathizing with the case study of Florence. Florence struggled to read and to remember what she had learned from the day before. As her reading difficulties continued, doubt and frustration slowly whittled away any self-confidence she possessed until she found herself trapped in the cycle of learned helplessness. As Gunning writes, “Believing she could not learn to read became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Florence. Because she had judged her efforts to be futile, Florence no longer worked on reading, learned less, and fell further behind, thus confirming her feelings of defeatism” (43).
Gunning describes the importance of developing self-efficacy in students to counteract defeatist attitudes (Gunning, 43). If the child believes she can do it, and the teacher provides her with materials that are easy enough for her to complete, the student’s confidence will soar. Besides having materials that are appropriate for the struggling student’s learning level, teachers should offer positive feedback whenever the student completes something particularly difficult, as well as explain why the concept they are learning is important and where and when the students should apply it. These teaching techniques are important to master, because in our own classrooms we will encounter many Florences or Cassies. As educators, we need to know how to deal effectively with their socio-emotional issues, or risk losing these students to an endless cycle of self-fulfilling failure.
Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 42-46.