Monday, September 7, 2009

How Can My Kid Succeed in School? Part Two

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from “How Can My Kid Succeed in School?” by internationally-recognized psychologist, Dr. Craig Pohlman, who has recently joined Southeast Psych and directs our Assessment Center.

How a kid goes about doing his homework can be very revealing. A lot of parents are dismayed when their child seems to just leap right into tasks without first contemplating the best course of action. Courtney, a sixth grader, fits this bill. Her mother describes her as a “bull in a china shop” when it comes to homework (and incidentally, most other times when a methodical approach is called for as well). When Courtney gets to a math word problem she seems to start scribbling calculations before she even finishes reading it. Sometimes she answers almost all of questions in social studies assignments before realizing that the directions wanted her to do something else. But above all, writing is a disaster. The notion of starting with an outline is totally alien to Courtney, who would much rather just get to writing; as a result, many of her great ideas never make it to the page or get hidden in a disorganized stream of sentences.

Courtney has a weakness in an aspect of her attention called production control, which is like the brain’s dashboard; her mind doesn’t have a reliable speedometer, meaning that she jumps into tasks too quickly, without first coming up with good plans. Dashboards also provide many signals to let you know how well things are working (such as a low fuel light and a door ajar signal), but Courtney’s production control doesn’t monitor her work very effectively. Her mother gets exasperated by all of the “careless” mistakes she makes in her homework. For example, she might miscalculate in math or misspell a word, but when prompted to take a second look, she readily finds these kinds of errors and fixes them.

Tate is a fourth grader and his dad says that homework “takes forever to get done.” The reason? Tate is very susceptible to distractions and daydreaming due to his attention processing control. His dad frequently reels him back in with little reminders like, “stick with it, Tate” or “come on back, dude!” Getting homework done in a reasonable amount of time usually requires staying focused on the task at hand.

Everyone, including adults, experiences difficulty with concentration from time to time. Even if you’re working in a place with few distracting sights and sounds, your thoughts may wander like Tate’s. For some people, processing control does not do a sufficient job of resisting “mind trips” and avoiding distractions. If given a choice between finishing homework and spending time on recreational activities, most kids would choose the latter; but kids with weak processing control are pulled even more strongly than other kids toward fun stuff and away from work.

A kid can have a hard time staying on task for reasons other than weak attention, however. Active working memory is what we use to mentally juggle or manipulate information. Monika frequently gets lost in the middle of homework tasks. As a seventh grader, much of her work involves multiple steps (such as when solving a math problem) or numerous components that have to be attended to simultaneously (such as all the aspects of writing a book report). In other words, she has to handle a lot of moving parts and her parents see her losing track of a lot of them. So she may get lost in the middle of a math computation and complain that she is confused about what to do next.

Dr. Pohlman conducts and supervises learning assessments for Southeast Psych and is available to present on learning issues. Feel free to contact him at 704-552-0116 or His new book is due out on Sept. 28th.