Helping the Discouraged Middle School Learner Before It’s Too Late

By Meghan Vivo

As early as middle school, some children have already given up on themselves. These are the kids who can be heard in the classroom telling the teacher “I’m not good at (fill in the blank) – whether it be reading, taking tests, or some other facet of school. They have declared themselves “bad at school,” resist new learning strategies or concepts that are presented to them, and have begun down a path that has parents and teachers concerned.

Carol Ranstad, the Director of Academics at New Leaf Academy of Oregon, a therapeutic boarding school for girls aged 10 to 14, specializes in helping reignite confidence and a passion for learning in discouraged learners and getting them back on track in time for high school.

What Is a Discouraged Learner?

According to Ranstad, a discouraged learner is a student who lacks confidence in their skills or abilities at school and feels hopeless about the prospect that their situation will ever change. This negative self-talk often translates into a child choosing to fail rather than risk the embarrassment and disappointment of trying and failing anyway.

Another hallmark of a discouraged learner is tremendous anxiety about school, explains Ranstad. This anxiety manifests in repeated attempts to get out of going to school, excuses like illness, and fears surrounding the social environment at school. “In many cases, the child’s anxiety follows her home, where homework time becomes a battle zone because the child would rather fight with her parents or declare that she ‘just can’t do it’ than make an effort that could result in failure,” says Ranstad.

When parents or teachers offer help, the discouraged learner quickly rejects the new learning strategies because she feels every technique she has tried in the past has failed. She would rather focus on the problems at school than talk about solutions. In essence, she has given up.

How Parents Can Help

“Parents are their child’s first teachers,” says Ranstad. Because parents have a strong influence early on, there are a number of steps they can take to prevent discouragement, or catch it before it’s too late.

Manage Your Expectations

A discouraged learner’s feeling of helplessness sometimes makes the parents feel helpless themselves, or angry that their hopes and dreams for their child are not being realized, despite the child’s immense potential and the parents’ own history of academic success.

“It’s only natural for parents to have expectations and plans for their child,” notes Ranstad. “I raised three children and expected that because I found school to be a wonderful experience, they would go on to achieve great success there as well. It was a real learning process, even as a trained educator, growing to know and accept them for who they are.”

Though high expectations are essential to your child’s success, those expectations must also be realistic, based on a firm understanding of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Just as not all children excel in every area, despite having the greatest potential, not all children share the same interests and abilities. Liberating your child from the obligation to be like her parents or fit a pre-determined mold sets her free to excel in her own right.

Know Your Child

“In order to be a good teacher for your child, you must truly see her for who she is – her strengths and weaknesses, capabilities and challenges,” says Ranstad. “Part of that process is recognizing and validating the child’s discouragement in school rather than brushing it off as laziness or lack of effort.”

Rather than trying to “fix” the child, partner with him to help him reach his full potential. In every case, there is an underlying reason for the discouragement and your child will feel safe and accepted if he knows you’re on the same team.

“Every child needs to know that there’s a reason she feels so anxious, frustrated, or discouraged at school,” counsels Ranstad. “She also needs reassurance that her parents are going to help her embrace those issues and develop tools to succeed in spite of them.”

The better you know your child, the better your child will know himself. Having a thorough understanding of his abilities and challenges helps him become an advocate for his own needs. When a child knows he deserves to be seen, says Ranstad, he’ll feel more comfortable respectfully asking for supports that would help him succeed, such as more time on a test, getting a copy of the overhead notes, or spending extra time with a tutor.

Get Involved

Busy parents can’t always identify the source of their child’s discouragement on their own. That’s why it’s critical to get involved with teachers and counselors at your child’s school to gain insights into your child’s strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, additional assessments and testing may be necessary to determine your child’s learning style and specific needs.

“If schedules permit, get in the classroom and talk to your child’s teachers whenever possible,” advises Ranstad. “If you are aware that your child is starting to fall behind, you’ll be able to figure out the reasons why and work to resolve them, rather than getting mad at the child and telling her to work harder.”

Of course, sometimes a child’s success can be improved by a few rules, such as turning off the television until homework is done. “Parenting is about bringing the right blend of loving acceptance and accountability into the home,” says Ranstad. An informed parent will be in a better position to know the source of the child’s problem and thus be able to decide if the best response is as simple as turning off the TV or as complex as getting outside help.

Redefine Success

Part of seeing your child for who he is means defining success based on his specific abilities and challenges. “Sometimes success for one family will look different from what another family calls success,” explains Ranstad. “Just knowing mom and dad are proud helps build confidence and fuels greater accomplishments.”

The definition of success should not be outcome-driven or based on comparisons to other families or children, according to Ranstad. Instead, it should be based on effort and capability. Once a child begins to take strides, however small, parents must celebrate those successes.

“At New Leaf, we’ve seen that when you honor effort rather than focusing on the end result, the students reach a level of skill development that no one, including the child, thought possible,” says Ranstad.

At the same time, Ranstad warns, parents should be careful not to unduly inflate their child’s ego. “Having a child think she’s great at something when it isn’t true, and later fail in that area, does the child a disservice in the long run. In order to succeed in school and in life, she needs a realistic understanding of her skills and talents. She needs hope, not lies.”

Know When to Get Help

Depending on the extent of the child’s learning challenges and the ability of the child’s school to offer special assistance and intervention, it may be necessary to seek outside help in order to best serve a discouraged learner. Private boarding schools like New Leaf Academy of Oregon, which offers a unique combination of intensive academic support and a broader emphasis on emotional growth, specialize in rebuilding discouraged learners’ confidence and ability to learn.

Because the New Leaf therapeutic boarding school works exclusively with middle school-aged girls, the school is able to intervene and successfully resolve issues before they become entrenched. Working as a treatment team alongside parents and students, the teachers and counselors help change old patterns and develop new ones that will contribute to a positive high school experience.

Once a student shows a growing degree of confidence and risk-taking, the staff is there to present endless opportunities for even greater success. Students are encouraged to show off what they know and what their abilities are, which helps their teachers understand their unique learning style.

Raising a child requires a team effort between parents, teachers, counselors, and the child. By partnering with your children and their educators, and offering acceptance, hope, and celebration of small successes, you can begin to break the cycle of discouragement.