Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Learning Anxieties

Cava was so proud of himself that he got an 8 out 10 on his spelling test from last week and got a star sticker from the teacher. This is no small accomplishment for him because he's struggled with his schoolwork. Previously, he'd gotten only a few of his spelling words right. This spelling test helps build his extremely low self-esteem as he doesn't see himself as smart.

"It's too hard for me!"

"That's not fair to me!"

"This is not fun for me!"

Those are all complaints we often hear him utter in defeat of some homework assignment he's gotten. Cava gets easily defeated with any assignment that he feels challenged by.

When either Danelle or myself help him, we spend much of the time just working on building up his confidence and repeatedly reemphasizing how smart he is and by telling him how amazed at how much he has already learned in the short time that he's been here.

Early childhood experiences impact any child's ability to learn, but this is made even harder for a child who has grown up in the orphanage system. These kids have faced multiple losses and are affected greatly by grief, loss, and trauma.

Even though Cava is 8 years old, he is, developmentally and educationally much further behind than his classmates. He is having to overcome not only continually learning a new language (both in speaking, writing, and thinking) but he's having to take these new words and make sense of them in terms of instructions just to do the work. This is very difficult. I know because I taught adult literacy for years and saw how hard it was for grown men who were born here.

With Cava, just as with those men I taught, I have to help Cava get pass the idea that it's an impossible task and to focus on his successes more than any failures. When he got upset about past spelling tests where he only got a couple of the words right, I had to keep reminding him that this was all still a very new language for him and that the longer he was here the more he would understand and pointed out how much he has already accomplished so far, which is amazing to me.

"I'm proud of you, Cava, and you should be proud of yourself," I told him when we got home. "Are you?"
He shook his head, but not like he meant it. "Cava, you really should be proud of yourself. You are super smart and have learned sooooo much in such a small amount of time." I squatted down so I could look him in his eyes. "You are an amazing and smart kid. You know you're smart, don't you?"

I could see in his eyes that he didn't.

Cava often feels a deep sense of shame. He is self-conscious about being short, about being different (adopted and from another country), about not being as smart as other children, and all of these things make him anxious. When he gets anxious or feels ashamed, that is often when he acts out. For him, his outbursts are a way of being in control. Or, with schoolwork, he will shut down if he is afraid that he'll fail or if he struggles with a subject.

We have sat down with his school and discussed this up-coming year with his principal and teacher. All of us understands that Cava will not be on grade level. We talked about the best ways to work with Cava and what patterns to look out for to keep anything from triggering him from acting out.

That sticker on Cava's spelling test meant a great deal to him. That small star gave him a sense of accomplishment and also helped us to emphasize that he is smart and that he can do it. Still, even with that sticker, Cava began to focus on the negative and the two words he missed. I redirected his focus back to the positive with, "But you got the other 8 and that's awesome! See, each week you are getting more of them right. That's great!" He smiles and agrees, "Yeah!"

A secure home and school environment will do wonders to help him realize that he is safe, that he is cared for, and that everyone is there to support and help him succeed. This will not be an easy task but the challenge is well worth it to see Cava progress and slowly gain confidence in himself and his abilities.  And I, for one, cannot wait to see what he learns next and to watch as each new success helps him see that he really  is smart and can do it.

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