In this Vital Mercy series, Dr. Brenda Murphy shares letters to help calm the fears, answer the questions and steer parents on a path to successful teaching and learning with struggling learners at home.

It’s Monday, the beginning of another typical home-school week. Breakfast is ready, and four of your five children gather around the kitchen table anticipating a nice, hot bowl of oatmeal and chilled, pulp-free orange juice. It’s pulp-free because the child, the one who’s not at the table, cannot, will not put anything with pulp in her mouth. It feels icky. Finally, she arrives, limping. She stops before sitting, her head down, surveying her feet, one shoed, the other shoeless. With her head still down, she lifts her clear, blue eyes and smiles that endearing, disarming smile you’ve seen a hundred times. You know what it means: I couldn’t find my right shoe, again, today, but I’m hungry so I came to the table anyway. 

You resign yourself; it’s just Sarah. The shoe will surface later; it’s not worth the battle. After all she is such a delightful, charming, funny little girl. Everybody loves her; she has such a great personality. She tells the most creative stories, and when school gets hard, she always changes the subject and doesn’t seem to care her younger brother now reads better than she does, and you can read his handwriting and not hers. 

Monday is now well underway. It’s mid-morning, time for math. Jeremy wants to keep reading. He loves to read and devours so many books that you make at least two trips to the library every week. But, at math time, Jeremy digs in his heels, dawdling and delaying the inevitable. “Do I really have to do math today?” he queries, knowing the next hour will be akin to a waking nightmare. He will read the explanation of how to do the problems, for the third day now. You will show him how to do the problems and with you right there, he seems to get it. You have not lost hope. Fifteen minutes pass; head down, he’s still diligently calculating, writing, erasing, propping his head in his hand. After forty-five minutes, he’s completed five, maybe ten problems. He brings them to you to check, at least that’s what you try to do because the multiple erasures make it hard to decipher his answers. The result: one correct, the rest wrong. He’s really depressed. The rest of the day goes downhill fast after that. And you know he’s really smart. What gives?

This month the whole family, including mom and dad, are learning the states and their capital cities as part of this year’s American history study. You’ve opted to use a unit study approach rather than a textbook because everyone loves the hands on projects and oral exchanges. After a couple of weeks of working with the map and playing states and capitals games, some of the children remember them better than you do, except Miranda. Precious Miranda. It seems even when she gets to look at a map, which the others do not, she cannot remember the states much less the capitals. Often, she mispronounces them, like “Delaware” might come out “Dwellare.” It’s so frustrating for her; one day she remembers as many as twenty, the next day not even two. She gets so irritated at herself she pounds her head with her hands.

Sarah, Jeremy, and Miranda are struggling learners. Just as snapshots in their family’s photo album mark their wondrous individuality, so the imprints of misfires, backfires, and duds in their learning processes capture, portray and define their world as hard, frustrating, less than satisfying. 

Of course there are varying degrees of learning struggles, some are subtle and soft, like taking a long time to retrieve a word the child wants to say. Others are profound and obvious: the inability to read on grade or age level by age 10, illegible handwriting with non-decipherable spelling, and no recall of math facts. 

Rather than categorize children who display such behavior as “disabled,” a more accurate way to view their struggles is to say they miss the mark in learning. Just like any archer or golfer knows, you take accurate aim at a target, sure you’re going to hit it, when, oops! It veers to the right (or left); the arrow cannot be found or the ball ends up in the deep rough. So, this tells the would-be Robin Hood or Jack Nicklaus more study and practice are needed or some serious lessons with a pro. The good news is that with accurate, sufficient knowledge and practice and outside help, the struggling archer or golfer can become proficient even expert.

The same is true of our struggling children who miss the mark. With patience, knowledge, and proper direction the academic missed marks can become areas of ability, even strength. I know. 

My personal story is next.

Dr. Brenda Murphy

Read the next letter, Apples.