Throughout pre- and early elementary school, Emma was sunny, confident, and engaged. Now 12 and in grade 6, her teacher paints a different picture: “Emma enters class pleasantly and seems to get along with the other kids. During class, however, Emma never participates. It seems her mind is elsewhere. Emma’s work reflects a general lack of effort, as if she doesn’t care.”

Jacob, 9, loves playing with hands-on materials. Building elaborate cities, he’s confident and capable. In class, though, he’s unenthusiastic. An observer might think his “light bulb” was dim. Often Jacob looks pained, particularly during open-ended writing assignments.

Both children show signs of a shut-down learner. These signs typically emerge in the upper elementary grades and become more pronounced by high school. They include:

  • a sense that the child is increasingly disconnected, discouraged, and unmotivated
  • fundamental weaknesses with reading, writing, and spelling, leading to diminished self-esteem
  • increased avoidance of school tasks such as homework
  • dislike of reading
  • hatred of writing
  • minimal gratification from, and increasing anger toward, school

The Formula

This formula helps explain how children become shut-down learners:

Cracks in the foundation + Time + Lack of understanding + Strained family communication = Shut-down learner

Understanding this formula will help parents of children like Emma and Jacob to take appropriate action.

Cracks in the foundation. Cracks in a child’s learning may be identified as early as preschool and kindergarten. Does your child have trouble learning letter names and their sounds, for example? By first grade, is she starting to blend sounds? In later elementary school, is writing laborious? If any answer is “yes,” it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will become a shut-down learner. However, like cracks in your house that will expand if untreated, you must prevent academic cracks from widening. Otherwise they’ll contribute to discouragement over time and a child ultimately shutting down.

Lack of understanding. Many shut-down learners receive work on a daily basis that they simply can’t handle, causing them unnecessary frustration. Parents and teachers often don’t understand the skill deficits that cause difficulty. For example, one fourth grader struggled to read certain words presented in a text, including “porcupine,” “passage,” and “amazement.” Since most fourth graders read silently to themselves, her teacher and parents mistakenly believed she had a comprehension problem, when she actually had difficulties with word reading and decoding. Additionally, many children who struggle in school don’t have problems considered severe enough to warrant special education. For those children, parents must seek outside remedial help, such as tutoring, where available.

Strained family communication. The beginning of homework time often marks an increase in the household temperature, as screaming and arguing become part of the landscape. Strained communication around homework can overwhelm families and contribute to a child becoming a shut-down learner.

Here's How to Help a Shut-Down Learner

  1. Trust your gut. If you believe your child has academic difficulties, listen to yourself. Don’t fall for statements such as, “You know how boys are,” or “She’ll grow out of it.” Act on your feelings even if your child has been deemed ineligible for school services. Consult a trustworthy, competent person outside the school system to assess your child.
  2. Know what you’re targeting. If your child’s assessment has identified issues of concern, chances are an aspect of his reading needs addressing. There are essentially two types of reading problems. In the first, the child has trouble decoding words and reading fluently. In the second, the child can read fluently, but has difficulty understanding what he has read. Understand the issues you hope to resolve; don’t scattershot remediation.
  3. Defuse the interaction. Yelling, pecking, and nagging don’t foster positive change. Has your child ever said, “Thanks for yelling, Mom. I’ll get down to business now?” Not likely. So why persist? Your kids probably feel overwhelmed by homework they can barely handle. In raising the heat, you simply add stress to their lives. Kids need emotional fuel to tackle their school difficulties, especially those kids who derive little gratification from their efforts. Look for small things to praise. Statements like, “Wow, I like the way you took out your work without my asking,” can mean a lot, especially to a child who might be discouraged.
  4. Find a mentor in school. Shut-down learners don’t feel very good about themselves and don’t see their  true strengths. If your child is of middle-school age or older (those preteen and teenage years when the development of a sense of self is critical), it’s crucial for him to have at least one person in school who will connect with him and rally on his behalf, even if he isn’t succeeding academically.
  5. Do something fun and enjoyable with your child. Play a board game or do an arts and crafts project together. Try not to let school problems set the tone for the entire household and dominate every interaction.
  6. Support your child. Academic discouragement is debilitating to children and families. Connecting with your child’s natural strengths and letting her know you’re both on the same team can help prevent her from becoming a shut-down learner.

Dr. Richard Selznick, a child psychologist from Haddonfield, NJ, is director of the Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Hospital, Camden. He is the author of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child,