In second grade we were learning our multiplication tables. I believe we covered 0 x 0 through 12 x 12. But we weren’t simply learning these answers. Our teacher wanted it to become second nature, so you could see the combination and instantly rattle off the answer. Yes, it has tremendous real-life applications, but for students with learning disabilities, it’s a bit more difficult.
We had these quick tests where we had to solve 20 to 30 problems within a minute. Well it wasn’t simply testing your knowledge of the material but how quickly you could recall it. If your brain has trouble relaying information in time, quick recall isn’t going to be a strong suit. Those tests were more anxiety-inducing for me than demonstrating academic mastery.
Another way of practicing our multiplication skills was playing a game called Around the World. We started on one side of the room with two students standing side-by-side. The teacher held up a flashcard, and the student who correctly said the answer first got to move on.
It was supposed to be fun, harmless competition to see who could last the longest as you competed across the classroom. There was one kid in the class who excelled at this game, so the real challenge became trying to beat him.
Again this was a way of not only testing knowledge but your speed in recalling it. That was tricky for me to do. It took me longer to recall that information so I didn’t often even get a chance to share an answer, and it wasn’t often that I was quicker than my classmate.
I’m sure the teacher didn’t intend for negative side effects. It was difficult enough to learn the pieces, let alone have to prove it quickly. And then on top of it to make a very public showcase of how well you know the material.
For what it’s worth, my teacher didn’t know about my sensory problems. By elementary school, they were mostly believed to be resolved through therapy. And it was the physical characteristics that were noticeable earlier. So the internal, emotional, academic impact wasn’t addressed.
In reflecting on this experience, I realized that I wasn’t treated differently from my classmates. I wasn’t given a modified lesson or modified expectations. This has positive and negative effects. It’s good that I was put in a position to strive beyond my current capabilities, to push myself and to grow. Those are good. But I could have benefited from being tested on simple knowledge of the material instead of how quickly I could recall it.
(For those interested, this website goes through the steps for getting an IEP, individualized education program.)
In some ways I think these small moments of struggling to keep up with my peers influenced my self-image. That I was somehow inferior because I couldn’t maintain the same pace as them. You can begin to think you are less important or less significant because you’re not able to perform at the same level.
I really got stuck on comparing my abilities with how my classmates did and judging myself based on what I saw. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time I was starting with extra hurdles. I thought I should be able to keep pace with them. And since I couldn’t, somehow that was a bad thing.
I’m not saying all of these inferior thoughts were present during the second grade. In fact I’m not sure when they really kicked in. But they were there later on for sure, because I still struggle with it as an adult.
This is not to say my parents or teachers explicitly downplayed my efforts. I’m sure that wasn’t the case at all. But somewhere along the way, I internalized this concept of needing to be just like my classmates. And once I finally brought home an A or an all-A report card, I felt like that had become my new standard, rather than celebrating and rejoicing in the results of hard work.
Poison of comparisons
While we’re on the topic: Why must we constantly compare ourselves to others? Measuring our abilities with others and thinking one is inferior or better than the other? We all have different skills, different competency levels, different interests. And yes varying degrees of success. But since success for one is apples and success for another is cartwheels, you really can’t compare! (If you’re confused: Apples could stand for a child finally eating an apple after refusing to taste it before, or it could just stand for one part of the typical “apples to oranges” comparison. Cartwheels was just a fun, random word that is clearly very different from apples.)
It’s a hard lesson to learn to focus on your own track and your own trajectory and your own timeline. And relish in your own milestones and breaking your personal records. I know I’m not the only one to struggle with this because human nature instinctively pushes us to compare and evaluate our progress as compared to someone else’s.
This is why setting individual goals and breaking those goals into steps really helps. It means that mastery takes time. It reinforces the idea that learning is a process and there are layers. It helps a student focus on his own path instead of someone else’s.
Working toward a goal isn’t a matter of making leaps of progress. It’s small steps with levels of growth.
There will always be some facet that can be improved or learned. So you’re always going to be in learning mode. Well, unless you have no desire for improvement or are satisfied with where you are.
But for me, I’m always thinking of where I want to be. It takes real effort and focus to acknowledge the progress that has been made. I’m always focused on what still needs to change. Which basically establishes a sense of never being happy with where you are or satisfied with what you’ve done so far. You’re focused on what’s next so much that it can be restless.
But just like with celebrating the kindergarten graduation, it’s very important to allow time to acknowledge the progress that is being made. To celebrate the small accomplishments along the way. To help your child recognize mastery of something when it happens.
And for everyone’s sake, don’t compare apples and cartwheels.