When Learners Shut Down: How to Help Your Academically Discouraged Child

When Learners Shut Down: How to Help Your Academically Discouraged Child

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Updated on May 12, 2009

Your teenager is struggling in school, and you’re convinced it’s because he’s just not applying himself. He barely does his homework, there’s a constant struggle at home, and the more you push, the more he retreats.

This is the classic case of a shut-down learner, says Dr. Richard Selznick. Selznick, who serves as director of the Cooper Learning Center, a division of the Department of Pediatrics of Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, assesses and treats a broad range of learning and school-based academic and behavioral problems. Over the years, Selznick has consulted with thousands of families and has discovered that, unfortunately, shut-down learners are a fairly common group of learners. “The prototype shutdown learner is a teenager who feels pretty beaten down by the time he comes to me,” Selznick says. “He has an emotional block, and his battery is depleted. He’s got his parents coming at him, the teacher. It’s too much.”

Selznick’s recent book, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child, is written for parents of just this kind of kid. “I try to present things to parents in a very down-to-earth way, without any jargon, so that it’s digestible and not threatening,” Selznick says. “The message is this: parents need to understand these kids. Yelling at the kids, telling them they’re not trying hard enough—this doesn’t work.” Selznick explains that in many cases, parents just need to back off, be less aggressive about the homework, and find a way to relate to their child’s struggles.

“These kids may have a range of learning disorders,” Selznick says, “but I want to stay away from the labeling because in the end, these kids have a great number of strengths that they need to key into.”

As Selznick explains it, the shut-down learner tends to be a problem-solver, someone who learns spatially and thrives with hands-on tasks that load on visual and spatial abilities. On the downside, they often lack the core skills necessary for success in school. “These kids often get all the way through the system, getting more and more disconnected because they simply can’t learn the way teachers want to teach,” Selznick says. “But when you say to the kid, ‘Look, you’re really good at this stuff—if I put you in a room with a hundred kids, you’re better than ninety of them’—then the kid feels okay, like ‘I’m good at a lot of things. I’m smart.’”

Selznick says the key is that these children learn differently; they need patience and understanding from parents, and they also need their parents to believe in their strengths and to empower them.

 “They can be a hard group to work with. They’re giving their parents a hard time, they look bored in class, they’re disconnected,” Selznick says. “Or, the second type I see is the ones who are more pleasant in the social area, but they’re masking their insecurities. Either way, they need to understand that they’re really smart kids and they’re good at things, too.”

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