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How to Boost the Confidence of Your Child – The Psychology of Learning

I was having a discussion with my wife over lunch and we were talking about why one of my students failed to improve after close to 6 months of tutoring. Having talked to the parents and child a little more, I discovered that the child had actually changed several tutors. The parents are running out of ideas. And to make matters worse, they didn’t provide honest feedback to me when I took the student on (perhaps due to the fear that I would reject the assignment).

In any case, truth always comes to light. Over time, I slowly discovered that the child has a tendency to forget everything that I had taught him in the previous weeks. Teaching the kid is like writing on a blank piece of paper, only to discover that months later, everything has been erased and I have to start all over. Not exactly a pleasant experience for any teacher. Maybe that’s why the previous tutors left.

Here is where my discoveries get interesting.

I am beginning to spot a pattern.

I was telling my wife, “Do you remember the excuses that people give when they fail to lose weight?”

I was referring to a weight loss TV program that we had watched together. When people fail to lose weight, they find all sorts of excuses.

“Are you watching your diet and counting your calories?”

“Of course!”

“Are you exercising regularly?”

“Of course!”

“Then why are you not losing weight?”

“I don’t know! I’ve tried everything. Maybe it’s just me. It’s hopeless!”

Sounds familiar?

Here is how the conversation unfolds when I talk to my student.

“Have you been doing your homework?”

“Of course!”

“Are you working on your vocabulary? Did you look up the new words in the dictionary?”

“Of course!”

“Then why can’t you answer these simple questions?”

“I don’t know!”

See the pattern?

It began to dawn on me that my student, just like the individual who fails to lose weight, is trying to fulfill a promise.

This is the promise: If I continue to prove to myself that I can’t achieve anything, then maybe I don’t have to do this anymore! It’s hopeless!

To be fair, maybe the child isn’t aware of what he is doing. But he is doing it nonetheless.

Grammar MCQ? See, all wrong! I can’t do this. It’s hopeless.

Cloze passage? See, 1/10, I can’t do this. It’s hopeless.

Sentence synthesis? 1/10 again! It’s hopeless.

And the student continues with this negative feedback loop till the end of time.

It’s interesting to note that during tuition, I now only have to put on a fierce expression and the kid will self-correct and get the right answers. I believe that’s because the child understands that on some level, he does know the answers. But his mind is constantly telling him to prove to the world (and perhaps himself) that he can’t do it. So he keeps choosing the wrong answers, perhaps subconsciously. When I (or the parent) am around, the feedback loop is temporarily interrupted and he manages to get the right answers.

Of course, this situation cannot persist. We will not be around when the child is taking his exams.

So what’s the antidote to this sticky situation?

Here is the antidote: Prove to the child that regardless of good or bad results, English is going to stay. Period. No IFs, no BUTs, no excuses.

The problem with the negative feedback loop is that on some level, the child hopes to get out of having to work on the subject if he can prove that the situation is going to happen.

Your job, as the parent, is to let him know that that’s not going to happen. And send a STRONG message.

The same works for those trying to lose weight.

“See? I did my exercises. I still can’t lose weight!”

Your response?

“Show me how you do your exercises.”

*Individual shows you his wimpy rubber band pulling exercise.*

“No, you are not doing it correctly. Let me show you how to do it again.”

Try to recognize the signals whenever the child is trying to prove to you that he or she can’t do it. Here are some examples.

“I told you I can’t do it.”

“See? I failed again. I told you so.”

“It’s hopeless. Nothing is going to work.”

Your response?

Remember that we need to remind the child that no matter what happens, English is going to stay.

So perhaps you can say something like, “Maybe it is. But good or bad, English is here to stay. So perhaps we can start looking for ways to prove that you can do it!”

Turn the tables. Don’t let the child tell himself that he can’t do it all the time. That’s unhealthy.

The next time your child tries an MCQ question, use it as an opportunity to prove that HE CAN.

Take it slow. Check the dictionary if he has to. Ask questions if he has to. But HE WILL get it right.

That’s the right approach.

Of course, I’m the first to admit that it’s not easy to change someone’s mind.

If a child is bent on trying to prove to everyone that he can’t do something, chances are, he will succeed.

But as adults, we know better. We know that the child is going down the wrong path.

And until the child is old enough to reason with himself and comes to the conclusion that he is doing the wrong thing, we can only ask the child to trust the adults.

The obese individual needs to be reminded of the negative consequences of being overweight – poor self-esteem, being laughed at, poor health, etc.

Similarly, the weak student needs to be remind of the negative consequences from time to time – cannot choose the ideal school, poor career options, looked down upon by others, etc.

The tutor and the parent can assume this role easily.

We never know when the child will turn around. That’s just how it is, working with people.

We can’t tell when the child will say to himself, “Enough is enough, I’ll start proving to myself that I CAN do it.”

But as mature adults, we can continue to stand by the child, gently prodding and guiding him, hoping that one fine day, he does change for the better.