From The New York Times Parenting Blog
By Margaret Gilmour
June 25, 2015
"... students buoyed by too much help become less motivated to initiate action on their own. The aide’s years of orbiting my son fostered a learned helplessness that increased his dependency on adult supervision, and decreased his self-esteem."
As a kindergartner in a large public school, my son, who has a language-based learning disability, was mainstreamed in a general education classroom and shadowed throughout the day by an aide, or paraprofessional. We requested this additional support so my son could manage basic 5-year-old tasks that proved difficult for him.
Being asked to line up with his classmates for recess, for example, wasn’t easy for my son. Although he heard the words, he didn’t necessarily understand their meaning straightaway. He needed time to process the information, then to respond. But in a school where academic rigor began on day one, there was no flextime for my son, who sauntered through his days with unhurried ease.
School days unfolded at a brisk pace. Like his peers, from the moment he stepped into class, my son was instructed to do this or that, go here or there. Faced with the roar of incoherence, he quickly lost interest in what was being asked of him and instead moved around the room searching for something of interest.
A classmate’s pretty blonde hair was something of interest. Tambourines, a closed desk, a book with bright pages — all very interesting to someone looking to escape the constant noise that he couldn’t comprehend.
This is where the one-on-one support provided much-needed direction. She kept him focused while he unpacked his backpack, prompted him to complete his work, helped him to transition from once space to another. Even as my son’s disability continued to improve, the aide stood by his side through kindergarten, first grade, then second, and continued to guide him all the way through most of fifth grade. In her wake, my son remained sheltered from mean kids and unkind remarks. He concentrated on an activity even as his classmates buzzed around him.
He also, however, became “prompt-dependent,” requiring endless nudges to begin his work, repeated verbal cues to complete it, and assurance that he had achieved success once finished.
I learned, much later than I would have liked, that students buoyed by too much help become less motivated to initiate action on their own. I did not understand until recently how the aide’s years of orbiting my son fostered a learned helplessness that increased his dependency on adult supervision, and decreased his self-esteem.
I did not know that he should have been weaned from his aide long before entering fifth grade.
Now, at age 12, my son is just grasping the notion of self-reliance in an environment outside of home where, moving about solo and with few distractions, he manages his world quite well. But when it comes time to sit and do homework, or a task demanding consideration, he looks to me for assistance. “I’m done!” I hear when I leave the room so he can work on his own.
“Great! You finished the whole math sheet?” No. “Then call me when you are finished,” I say.
“Is the answer 10?” I will not play his game. I wait in my office. “The answer is nine, right?”
We began unraveling the shepherd effect last summer when I enrolled him at a local nature day camp where my older son was a camp counselor years ago. After meeting with the camp director, we decided to register my son as you would any typical child. There was no one following him to fend off potential meanies, or to make sure he paid attention to his counselor.
I was nervous, of course, but knew that it was (way past) time to unleash him into a safe environment where he could take independence for a test drive.
While at camp, my son encountered Tommy, a big kid with a big attitude. “He yells a lot,” my son told me after the 1st day of camp. “Sometimes he is not nice.” On day two as my muddy, creek-soaked kid got in the car he said, “Tommy told me to shut up.”
“Oh,” I said, waiting to hear more. “What did you do?”
“I told him to keep his mean thoughts in his head.”
“Good for you! That’s a great thing to say!”
It turns out that Kyle, the group’s 17-year-old counselor, encouraged my son to tell Tommy to “Keep his mean thoughts in his head,” an empowering comment that put an end to the unwanted behavior, and a line my son has used many times since.
I could see then that with minimal support, my child was perfectly capable of maneuvering through new environments on his own. The worst thing that happened that week at camp was that his glasses fell into the river while learning to paddle a canoe, but a junior counselor jumped to retrieve them.
My 12-year-old is no longer in a public school, but in a small, specialized learning environment, where he is testing the waters of autonomy without the safety net of an adult peering over his shoulder. He works in a group with three or four of his peers who urge him to finish his work if needed, or to stop talking so they can finish theirs. He hands me imperfect artwork that I know is solely completed by him, and that I prize, along with misspelled Mother’s Day cards that only I can decipher.
Some days he comes home without his water bottle, or with another student’s pair of socks. But I am not concerned. I love seeing who he is in his newfound freedom.
This summer I signed him up for two weeks of nature camp, and we are more prepared: I purchased a pair of orange Croakies eyewear retainers. He’ll be able to keep his glasses on, paddling his own canoe.