Ready to Learn : How to Help Your Preschooler Succeed
By Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.
The long brown curls became visible as tear-filled eyes peeked from behind the banjo case. My four-year-old son looked at me and tried to form words, but only quivering movements came from of his little mouth.
"Justin!" I screamed, "I told you not to climb on that cabinet! Can't you ever listen to what I say? Don't you understand how dangerous that was? Look at what you did!"
Around him were broken antiques, some over one hundred years old. I looked on the floor at the rubble and saw cracked plates from Dresden factories mixed in with shattered glass from Czarist Russia and the lid of a mangled Cloisonne vase. Fifty antiques fell from the shelves of a two hundred-pound, seven-foot-high cabinet as it toppled over and landed on the edge of my banjo case. While the case saved my son from any injury, the cabinet destroyed the beautiful $1,200 instrument within it. He stood there with a look every parent sees when their child does something terribly wrong, knows it, and waits to hear the inevitable yelling.
"Why did you do that when I told you not to? Can't you ever listen?"
The prior week I moved the cabinet, but neglected bolting it to the wall. I wanted to think my procrastination wouldn't be a problem, but I should've known better. It wasn't as if this was an isolated incident. I chose to ignore warning messages my son sent me since he was two years old. He would forget things, become easily distracted, and often appear confused. And, as someone who didn't wish to face the obvious, I wrongly and thoughtlessly redirected responsibility for the accident onto him. Tears became sobs and he began to cry uncontrollably. Of course he heard my warning, he always did. He always wanted to please both my wife and me. But for some reason, he continually forgot what I asked him to do, or in this case, not to do. I expected him to listen and stay away from the cabinet. He stood with mismatched socks and knotted laces in a sea of broken antiques. As I watched him, I realized his pain was not only caused by my anger, but something more basic. As he rhythmically rubbed his fingers back and forth on the edge of the broken banjo case, he finally developed the courage to speak.
"I'm sorry Daddy," he said between sobs. Then in a whisper, "I forgot".
At four years of age, he already knew something about him was different. He didn't know what it was, but he did know it caused people, especially me, to become angry. He was a funny, delightful, sensitive, smart, and intuitive child. But like millions of others, his learning style was different. It took time for me to realize Justin's lack of attention wasn't an act of defiance, or a desire to make my life challenging-he just learned differently. In a world that often doesn't recognize differences as positive and natural, his learning style was creating problems. And if people, myself included, continued reacting to Justin as if he learned like other children, the problems were certain to grow and eventually be viewed as something more ominous, a "disorder." I should have known better by then, since my daughter, who was four years older, also learned in her own unique way. But like many other parents, I tried to pretend this was a behavior issue, not something neurological, not something beyond his control.
"If he would just try a little harder," I would say to my wife, "just make up his mind to do things the right way, everything would be fine."
I was wrong. I eventually came to realize my children's problems had nothing to do with not trying. If anything, they tried harder than other children. Unfortunately, they zigged left when most other children zagged right. From the day of the antique disaster, I began a 20-year journey to help not only my children, but also others with learning differences. For Justin, I needed to do things that would make his memory as solid as concrete. I slowed down my speech when I spoke to him, allowing information to slowly seep in. I gave only one idea or request at a time. When I asked him to do something, I would immediately have him repeat back to me what I had said. I always used visual cues, like lists, rather than relying only on words. Not all of his memory problems were corrected, But 17 years later, Justin still uses the strategies I taught to him. His problems have become manageable, enough so that he is able to succeed in a demanding major at a prestigious university.
Some would maintain all children learn differently. Research shows that at least six million children learn in ways that don't match up with the teaching approach used by many parents and educators. These "mismatches" can lead to problems and distress for both children and parents. Children don't understand why they're having so much difficulty learning. Parents wonder why their child can't learn seemingly simple things. They are anxious about how their child will perform in kindergarten, and more importantly, how their learning difficulties will affect them for the rest of their lives.