Lear­ning to Learn in “Mana­gea­ble Pieces”

Admin/ October 10, 2009/ Sharing Stories

When Anne and Tyler Engel came to see me about their 15-year-old son TJ, it was hard at first to see why. He was bright, good-looking, and outgoing, asking me about the Indian artifacts in my office. Were they old? Were the big woven baskets for some special ceremony?  In turn, I asked him a little about his life. What was he good at? TJ shrugged. Baseball, swim team, lacrosse. He had a lot of friends, including a girlfriend. In fact, at his boarding school, it was currently the fashion for girls and boys to wear each other’s pants, which is why his jeans were so short. “Girls’ clothes suck,” he confided. “The pockets aren’t deep enough to hold anything.”

TJ’s parents looked frustrated. TJ was clearly happy to talk about anything but the real issue: his boarding school had not asked him back for the following year. “We love TJ,” the headmaster had said. “But he’s not making it.”

This was the latest in a string of disappointments. TJ’s parents, who both held graduate degrees, were at a loss to understand their son’s academic record, which from fourth grade on was a checkerboard of failed exams, missing assignments, and never-fulfilled promises to improve.

By the time the Engels realized there was a problem academically, there were other problems, too. TJ talked back, broke rules, refused to participate in class.  Before the boarding school, they had tried sending him to a residential school focused on behavioral issues—without visible results, unless you counted a new tendency on TJ’s part to take a cool, remote attitude to his failures. Now his answer for everything was that it was “no big deal.”

Was TJ’s academic failure a deliberate act of defiance? Mr. Engels wondered. Was his son spoiled and unwilling to make the simplest effort to improve? Or was TJ struggling with serious learning disabilities, as his mother still believed?

Our team did a thorough assessment. The results surprised both parents. TJ had only mild, easily surmountable learning disabilities. But he also had difficulties with focus, attention, and executive function issues—which meant that he could not concentrate and organize himself to break a task into its steps and carry it out.

His academic performance was also impacted by two other factors. One was that he was hugely popular. When his work was too difficult there was always something more fun to do and people to do it with. The other was that he had built up a defensive psychological behavior to shield himself from failure. No one would know he couldn’t do his work, if he never did it. Meanwhile, the expectations grew and his abilities didn’t.

The immediate issue was where would TJ go to school that fall? Mr. and Mrs. Engel had a list of private schools, including one that I thought would be perfect. It was small; he couldn’t get lost there. It wasn’t academically challenging to the point that he couldn’t succeed. But it wasn’t a pushover, either. He would have to work hard to do well.

Although the Engels still hoped for a “better” school, TJ’s past record kept him from being accepted anywhere but the school that would be perfect for him. But it would only be perfect if we could reshape his learning behaviors.

Our team at the Rush Neurobehavioral Center put together a program for TJ that would help him do well. He did see a psychiatrist and it was useful, but therapy doesn’t take the place of reality. What TJ needed was to succeed, and by his own efforts.

A couple of times a week we sent a tutor to his school, who worked with TJ on creating the structure he needed to make his work do-able. Before, when TJ had six homework assignments and felt overwhelmed, he’d retreat, and go do something else with a friend. Now we broke each assignment into manageable pieces. The tutor would ask, “How long will it take to read 20 pages?” or point out,  “There are study questions at the end of the chapter—if you look at them first, you‘ll know what notes to take.” We started with a lot of structure. Naturally TJ wanted to be more independent—which was a great motivator for him.

When TJ saw that he could be successful, he started to enjoy learning. I’ve been seeing TJ for three years now. When he came in last week, he’d just gotten into the college he really wanted to go to. “I came, I saw, I conquered!” he said. His parents were thrilled. He had become the student they had always believed he could be.

TJ had always been a great kid—sweet natured, smart, and genuinely interested in other people—but now he had learned to work. The new patterns he learned have made him a person who can depend on himself. Because we made success do-able, it happened.

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