Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why your child's grades don't matter as much as you think they do

We are a society obsessed with betterment through numbers and it seems that we are constantly trying to find ways to have simple numbers prove our worth in society.

Films, for example, are rated by the number of stars a reviewer gives them - or by their gross takings at the box office but neither of these is a personal rating applicable to you, the viewer. We've all had times where we've disagreed with critics and we all know that box office success doesn't always mean that a film is great.

The same applies to other parts of our lives. People who engage us in conversation want to know what type of car we drive, where we live and what we do for a living. They seem like harmless enough questions but quite often these people are fishing for the clues which will help them either outrank you in some way - or become insanely jealous.

Of course, our lives are far too complex to be defined by such simple comparisons but that doesn't stop people from trying - particularly if they have the numbers on their side.

School Grades
Believe it or not, school grades and awards are just another ranking. Unfortunately, they're a ranking which can destroy young lives if they're taken too seriously.

"You'll never get a good job if you can't get good grades", a parent will often say, "you'll end up being unemployed or collecting garbage for the rest of your life".

Such statements aren't helpful - and they're not true either. We live in a world where the "white collar" middle-management class is top-heavy and surplus - and there aren't enough tradies to go around. People can live without a project manager but leave them with a blocked toilet for a few days and they'll pay almost anything to have it fixed.

Even those of us with good grades are at the mercy of our social skills. It's the main reason why so many people with Asperger's syndrome work in jobs far below their capabilities and certification - or not at all. It's not what you know, it's who you know, how you relate to others and how well you fit into normal social conventions.

The Three "R"s
No doubt you've heard of the three "R"s; Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. These are core skills which will be needed by our kids throughout their lives regardless of the career they pursue. They will need to be able to read signs, fill in forms and calculate costs as part of their daily lives. The three Rs form the basis of all other parts of learning and need to be developed in the school years because our capacity to learn drops off sharply in our twenties.

These skills take precedence over everything else including, science, religion, Shakespeare and art.

So if your special needs child is failing Shakespeare, ask yourself; are they improving in reading, writing and basic arithmetic? These are the things which really matter.

You're probably interpreting the three Rs as having kids who can read books, write essays and perform pages of mathematics.  These a great ideas but let us be a little looser in our interpretation.

  • Reading is to communicate via unspoken language.  You'll find that there are signs to be read all around us but only some of them have words.  Have your child interpret iconic signs as well as words.  In fact, iconic signs are often an easier place to start.  Start with the basics such as ladies and gents toilets and then move up to less obvious ones like Stop and give way.  Make sure that you child understands the meanings of these signs since reading without understanding meaning is pointless.  When iconic signs are mastered, work on worded signs, street names for example.  Show your child how to reference street names in a directory or GPS as you drive.   Reading is not just about books.

  • Writing is a means of communication via written language. Just as the first writings were pictographs, so too can your child's first written communication.  Have them draw things that they want such as food and drink. Leave bottles and cans with labels about for them to copy - you'll find that they copy the words too.  Don't stress over legibility - I know plenty of doctors who can't write legibly today.  Don't stress over backward or transposed letters either.  It is a pain and it is disconcerting when it continues for years but it's not necessarily a sign of dyslexia.  Be patient with your child's stresses and remember that low muscle tone which is common in children with Aspergers syndrome, can make writing very uncomfortable.  Ultimately, if your child has too much difficulty forming letters, then give them alternatives such as touchpads or computers to type on.  Remember that writing isn't about letter formation, it's about getting ideas down onto paper in a form that others can understand.

  • The idea behind arithmetic is that your child should be able to conceptualise quantity and adjustments to it quantity.  You'll find very little everyday life mathematics that involves multiplication and division  Most of the time it's simply addition and subtraction.  Fractions rarely make an appearance and many people can go through their entire post-school lives without raising numbers to powers or using algebra or calculus.  For most of us, mathematics is all about determining how much change to expect when buying things so that you can tell if you can afford something and if you're being "ripped off".  With that in mind, take your child on trips to the shops.  Give them small amounts of money and ask them to buy what they can.  Lolly shops with patient storekeepers are great for this exercise and it's this kind of maths that is far more important than pages of exercise problems.

Beyond the "Three Rs"
After the three R's come social skills and the ability to form concepts.  Usually neither of these even warrant a grade at school but they're critical skills.  Social skills are far more critical than than grades, degrees and diplomas when it comes to getting a job - and they're even more important when it comes to keeping it.  If your child isn't learning appropriate social skills at school, then get them involved in extracurricular activities.  These can include sports, scouting, chess clubs, movie clubs - anything provided that there's a social aspect to it.

The ability to generalise from concepts is critical too but for some reason, this isn't even a skill that is taught or acknowledged.  It's simply expected to materialise from nowhere.  Unfortunately, it's not something that happens easily when a child has Asperger's syndrome. In those cases, it needs to be taught explicitly.  

Put Away the Report Cards
We'd all like our children to get great marks and we'd all like them to get student of the week or citizen of the term but the fact is that sometimes our child's differences work against them.  Lets not fall into the trap of comparing our child's metrics with those of other children.  It gets in the way of real learning.


Nature Mom said...

That is why my aspie son is in a private school with an extra aid to help him with social skills. With his IQ, grades will never be an issue, but good grades will not help him form relationships to be a happy person.

evedwards said...

Great post once again. In many ways, I agree. If you're determined enough it will become a reality. Anything is possible!


Anonymous said...

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Hazel_Myope said...

I love what you wrote. Our grades in school mean a lot less than we think they do.

I was always the nerd in school and got good grades in some subjects (mostly in Science and Maths) but then didn't get any GCSEs. I had to leave at 14 because I was depressed and suicidal. I didn't get any qualifications but I have a better job than a lot of the ones who did, because of my determination.

What I think most illustrates your point is my hobby.

In school English was my second worst subject after PE (which I basically failed) because I found the instructions hard and had trouble judging the teachers expectations. I also never did homework.

I did, however, love reading. Fiction, non-fiction, cereal packets, anything I could get my hands on. Eventually my love of books took me to a creative writing group, mostly because there was no book club in the area, and it was the start of my love affair with writing. And I am good at it.

I wish my teachers could see me now.

Interestingly, it's some of the skills that I gained trying to cope with my Asperger's that made me good. I started people watching to try and understand them and learnt about all those little things we do that make a character seem real. I couldn't extrapolate from or group people them based on gender, race, class or any of the other things we use to judge a person unfairly so I didn't write stereotypes. When I wanted to elicit a certain emotion from a reader I couldn't just type it out and get it first time, I had to think, analyse, extrapolate and edit and was rewarded by better results than many of my NT contemporaries. Getting a groan of shared hurt from a whole group for a character they only met four pages ago can boost anyone's ego.

Most importantly, I learnt to use what I knew from reading about psychology, spending time with a psychiatrist and examining my own behaviour to fix a problem that kept me from following my dream. I tend to suffer from big highs and bad lows, meaning that on a few days I wrote loads but most I didn't do anything and then felt guilty which made me too low to write. Then I started setting small, daily goals and if I hit them for a whole week I got a reward. I slowly increased them and I currently write 400 words a day.

Determination and enthusiasm is what gets you places, not grades.

Haven't learnt how not to go on about a subject yet, though. :P

Tammy said...

When I look at my son's "grades" it's not A, B C, etc.. It's a scale from 1 to 5, showing if they think he will complete a goal. It's frustrating when they continue to put 3, and by the time the IEP needs to be re-done, he hasn't completed the goals.