Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.
All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.
[My son] told me he skipped math class again today. This is the second time already this semester. After he calmed down and we talked about it a little, he said he feels stupid in math class and it’s not worth going because he won’t learn anything. I reminded him that he did well on his last test and he says that this test will be much harder. I tried to encourage him but he won’t listen. Will you talk to him about the importance of going to class? I think he heard me today but if it also came from you I think he’d listen.
It sounds like he’s getting frustrated and overwhelmed with the new material. Yes, I’ll be sure to talk about it with him when I see him tomorrow. He was having some trouble on the more complicated integrals we practiced last week and I’m guessing that’s the main source of his frustration. He seems to understand the principles, but makes little mistakes in the execution that add up over time and result in a very wrong final answer. That really gets under his skin, and I really sympathize—it sucks to feel like you’re doing something right and still get the wrong answer.
This avoidance of class and the anger he’s expressing with me are both normal. I find that for many of my autistic students, especially young men, anxiety manifests as opposition. In other words, they’re anxious about doing something right, and they don’t want to fail, so they decide they don’t want to do it at all. Makes sense to me—no one wants to do something they’re not good at, right? Autistic students are often hyper-sensitive to doing the “right” thing since they are so often chastised for doing the “wrong” thing when they didn’t know they were doing it wrong. In [your son’s] case, doing the “right” thing but still getting the wrong answer must be taking a toll on him.
There are a few things we can do to help this in the short-term. So many of the problems he’s having are psychological that I think having a few easy wins will help a great deal—building confidence and getting right answers can lead to a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one. He also seems to be attaching most of his anxiety to the test, not the actual material, so I’ll construct a practice test for him to work on and get some exposure therapy. Socially, I’ll make it clear that anxiety is fine and appropriate, but I’ll steer him towards healthier ways to express that anxiety that he is comfortable with.
In the long-term, nothing will be a better solution than mastering the material and getting a high score on the test, so that will be our final goal—but I’d like to take a few steps back and make sure he’s comfortable continuing and building some confidence before we get back into it.
Thanks for letting me know so I can adjust my program accordingly—that’s not the sort of thing he often tells me unless I ask specifically!
This student has a long history of anxiety, especially around test-taking. His autism makes it difficult for him to express that anxiety in a constructive way. He prefers to avoid the source of his anxiety, or to confront it very aggressively (talking about how he’s dropping the class and never doing it again, shouting at the teacher, etc).
Anxiety around these difficult math concepts is normal, in my opinion—it’s tough stuff. So the feeling isn’t the problem, and I don’t think we can control these feelings anyway. So my approach (informed by acceptance and commitment therapy, of course) is to instead coach my students on how to respond to those feelings instead. We accept the anxiety and discuss strategies for getting the right answer and performing well on the test anyway, working with the anxiety instead of against it. This is a difficult balance to strike, especially for those students who feel big feelings like many autistic people do. Ultimately, though, it’s healthier and more sustainable to approach it this way.