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Bright boy stumbling short of success

A boy in the high school freshman advanced math class I teach is clearly very bright but sabotages himself by failing to turn homework in or finish problems on tests. Then he is distraught over his bad grades and I have seen him wipe angry tears from his eyes when he gets back a paper with a low grade. How can I help him break out of this self-destructive rut?

Oh, I know this boy. I have seen him in many forms over the years. He is yearning for success and afraid of failure. He is tied in knots because his performance in school does not live up to his intelligence or his image of himself as being a boy in control. The problem here isn’t just math. The problem is his developing as a learner, developing strategies for dealing with frustration and feelings of ignorance. Math is only one of this boy’s worries. He is struggling to develop into a dogged, courageous student. Such students are made, not born, and there aren’t a lot of ninth-grade boys who have developed into steady, resilient students. Their self-esteem and personal discipline are too erratic for that.

What adults forget about school is how exposing it is to learn something new and how humiliating it is to make mistakes in public. Stop and think. When was the last time you were required as part of your job, to do something inpublic that required mastering material you knew nothing about? When was the last time you your boss handed you back a report marked up in red ink? When was the last you got a grade on a piece of paper-in front of all your co-workers? Most adults avoid experiences like that. Children are put in embarrassing positions in school every day. It is so routine that we forget how painful it can be. This boy is smart enough to do the math; he needs to learn how to support himself emotionally when he does it. You can help.

I suggest that you talk with him. Ask him whether he knows how smart he is in math. Does he feel smart in your class? If not, why not? What happens when he tries to do the work at home? Is it too frustrating? Is there some other reason he isn’t finishing that homework? Tell him you see how much he wishes to do well. Tell him that you see his frustration. If you’ve seen boys like him get the hang of advanced math after a tough start, tell him so. That’s encouraging. Ask him if there is any way you can make math more accessible to him, but be wary of asking, “How can I help?” The idea that he “needs help” can make him feel like a loser. He’d rather see this as a matter of developing strategies for success-something winners do-and he’ll be right.