When Children Aren't Appropriately Challenged

Helping children feel challenged in their school environment is all about balancing expectations with a child’s individual learning style. When the expectations are too low, and children are under-challenged, they feel bored. When expectations are too high, and children are over-challenged, they feel overwhelmed. Both scenarios can result in a cycle of negative behavior that hinders learning.

Appropriately challenging a child requires a partnership between parent and school and is a matter of getting it “just right”. This involves understanding what an individual child’s potential is, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and giving him work that’s just a little more difficult than he can currently manage. It also means not confusing challenge with overwork. It is not that children need more work, but rather that they need work that stimulates and excites them: work that engages their natural aptitude as learners. All children are born with a natural enjoyment of learning. Consider, for example, the fact that children conquer the difficult tasks of learning language and walking (among other things) without thinking twice. No child feels that “it’s boring to learn to walk,” and no child feels that it’s too difficult and so abandons the task. That is because all of these things are appropriately challenging and meet a deep developmental need for all children.

So how do you know if your child is under or over-challenged? Some behaviors that might indicate this are:

* Inattention. One fourth grade student told me that during math time, he “zones in and out.” When I asked what he meant he said, “It’s boring. I know all of the material already. So I zone out and think about other things, then when my teacher asks me a question, I zone back in so I can answer the question.” Inattention can also be a result of feeling over-challenged. A fifth grade girl told me that they’re reading a book aloud in class that she keeps “getting lost” in because she “can’t keep track of the characters.” When that happens she simply stops paying attention and thinks about what she’s going to do after school instead.

* Distractibility. One second grader kept answering the teachers questions with non sequiters. The teacher might have asked “What two numbers can we combine to make the number five?” To which the child would reply, “Ooo, can I be the one to feed the fish today?” Upon closer examination, the teacher discovered that there were five fish in the classroom tank, and because the child was under-challenged by math, it sparked a related but totally different sequence of thought for her. On the side of over-challenge, one Kindergartner kept asking questions about unrelated subjects when he felt overwhelmed at morning meeting. It was as if (the teacher reported) “his mind was all over the place.”

* Daydreaming. Sometimes children who are over or under-challenged zone out like the fourth grade boy, but fail to “zone back in.” Daydreaming is a way of stimulating an under-challenged mind, and a way of escaping for an over-challenged mind.

* High energy level. The saddest result of children feeling over or under-challenged is that it may result in a high energy level that is then misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD. While there are some children who do indeed have the oft-diagnosed disorder, there are also many children who are misdiagnosed. When children are under-challenged, they tend to find ways to engage and stimulate themselves. This may mean energetically disrupting the classroom, or becoming the class clown. When children are over-challenged, they may try to distract others with high energy behavior.

It’s important to understand that all of these behaviors can also mean a child is testing limits. Setting limits and providing consequences is part of appropriately challenging children, not antithetical to it.

If you believe that your child is being under or over challenged in school, it’s important to be your child’s advocate. Meet with his or her teacher, not to confront or criticize them, but to offer to be part of the “teaching team.” Every teacher I’ve ever worked with during the many seminars I’ve given has acknowledged that when parents and teachers form a true partnership, the child benefits. Most teachers are grateful for the insights that parents can offer in regard to their children, and are willing to brainstorm about ways in which to engage a child who’s under-challenged, or meet the needs of a child who is over-challenged.

Finally, remember that a child who is being appropriately challenged will still struggle. In fact, a little struggle is part of getting the challenge “just right.” Keep in mind the story of the teacher who sent his student out into the woods to watch a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. The student watched for a long time, until finally he felt so bad that the butterfly was struggling that he helped it out of the cocoon. The butterfly flew a few feet, then fell to the ground and died. The student began to cry and ran back to his teacher, asking, “Why did the butterfly die?” The teacher responded, “When you reached in and helped the butterfly out of its cocoon, you deprived it of the opportunity to strengthen its wings in the struggle.

An appropriate challenge for any child involves some struggle. Not too little, or the child’s wings won’t be strong enough, and not too much or the child will exhaust himself and give up.