On The Course to Success: Putting Learning In Perspective

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This summer, I have been working on my golf game. Putting looks so simple; the ball should simply roll along and plop right in the hole. But it’s not that easy.

Similarly, parents and educators seeking the right strokes to put high ability children on the course to success may struggle putting the learning journey into perspective: What if we can’t afford the summer enrichment program? What if my child chooses skateboarding over piano? What if he is not in the accelerated class? What if she’d rather play with friends than do the robot-making competition? Is my child achieving enough?

 How do we lower our handicap?

Lately, in an effort to improve my putting, I’ve been reading Putting Out of Your Mind by Dr. Bob Rotella[1], an esteemed sports psychologist and golf expert, and the bestselling author of Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. And for parents of high ability children, three of his putting tips are especially on par:

“There is no such thing as perfect putting mechanics. There is no perfect way to roll the ball.”

 Dr. Rotella asserts that there are, not one, but many ways to putt a ball so that it lands in the hole. He observes:

Golfers today are inundated with information and pseudo-information about the mechanics of putting. The implication of much of it is that a perfect stroke exists and that if you could only attain it, you would putt perfectly…So we have many players in hot pursuit of the perfect putting stroke. The more putts they miss, the more convinced they become that their stroke is to blame. The more information they get about the stroke, the more lost they become in thoughts of mechanics. (129-130)

Just as there are many ways to putt, there are many ways to learn and excel. Although every child needs fundamental skills, a method or “stroke” that works to inspire one child may not be the best for another. Some children may love spending time on computers. Others relish current events discussions and debates, or visiting the library, or building forts, or hiking in the woods. There are countless ways to help our children become lifelong learners when we recognize and build upon their passions. Rotella advises, “Fall in love with the stroke you have. It’s more than good enough to get the ball into the hole.” (136).

“To gain control, give up control”

When it comes to putting, Dr. Rotella advises that “trying too hard” can actually impede success. He observes:

…[T]he main reason trying too hard doesn’t work is that it invariably diminishes the chances of making a good stroke. It introduces doubt to the mind. It tightens the muscles. It robs the player of his natural talent and destroys his rhythm and flow. (51)

Rotella asserts that when it comes to putting, golfers need to relax, focus on the target, and stroke the ball. He explains that “giving up control” does not mean to stop caring, but to avoid becoming too consumed with the importance of the result.

Similarly, learners falter when focused too much on insuring that every stroke toward academic excellence results in success. Misses are part of any challenging game; we learn from them, grow, and move on. Like good putters, children need to relax and embrace the process of learning, practicing and performing.

 “You’ll make your best stroke and hole the most putts if you think only of your target.”

 When putting, Dr. Rotello advises that players focus on the target – a simple and natural method for sinking a ball into a hole.

Like golf, learning is a course dotted with beautiful, inspiring targets, some of which are close, and some of which are off in the distance. Solving a unique problem. Creating a beautiful composition. Mastering an art. Discovering new knowledge. Making the world a better place.

Yet, unlike on the golf course, these targets are not marked with tall poles and brightly colored flags. Putting learning in perspective requires helping our children not to get caught up in the strokes, but to develop a life-long love of learning, envisioning meaningful targets, and continually taking aim.

[1] Rotella, Robert J., and Robert Cullen. Putting Out of Your Mind. London: Pocket, 2005.

My Child Is “Bored” In School: Suggestions for Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences

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Parent-teacher conferences are an excellent forum for addressing questions and concerns about student progress.  Yet, when face to face with a child’s teacher, a concern such as “I think that my child is bored in school,” can be difficult to articulate. Here are a few suggestions for parents with concerns about insufficient challenge:

  • Be specific: Children’s academic strengths can vary with respect to subject area. If you feel that your child is insufficiently challenged, is there a certain subject, such as reading or math, that is of concern? Is there a particular topic such as spelling or multiplication that your child feels is too easy? If available, bring examples of your child’s work in these areas. The more specific your concern, the better able the teacher will be to address it.
  • Focus on Growth: We want children to be challenged because every child deserves to grow academically and be engaged in school. With respect to growth, here are a few questions to ask your child’s teacher: What are my child’s areas of strength and/or extra focus? How can I provide support at home? How are areas of growth/strength communicated to my child at school? What improvement has been observed in my child’s work since the beginning of the school year?
  • Share What You Know: If you have them, bring in samples of stories, writing, or projects that your child creates at home. This can provide the teacher with valuable information about your child’s interests and academic potential.
  • Avoid “Side-Stepping”: A child’s complaint about “boredom” may sometimes indicate struggle with the less “glitzy,” but important aspects of learning such as proofreading, revising, computation practice, or even problem-solving. It is true that “skill practice” needs to be balanced with opportunities for exploration, creativity, and fun. Yet, attention to detail, perseverance, and accuracy are important for success in school and beyond. When advocating for your high-ability child at conferences, do not sidestep these “challenges” — ask your child’s teacher about ways to support and encourage your child in these areas at home.
  • Keep Your Child Accountable for Behavior: For parents and teachers of high ability children, behavior issues in the classroom can be a “red flag” indicating that the child needs more challenge. In light of this, it may be tempting to empathize with your child’s feelings of frustration and look away from negative behaviors. But this response undermines learning and can even encourage underachievement.  Addressing behavior issues associated with insufficient challenge takes a “two-pronged” approach. Hold your child accountable for behavior, but don’t stop there; teach your child how to advocate for challenge in a positive way. Does your child have a story to write or a topic of interest that she could to explore if class work is finished early? Are there meaningful ways to improve his or her work? If possible, consider a follow up meeting with your child and the teacher to discuss ways to access more challenge in the classroom, as well as to “start over” and make positive behavior choices.
  • Ask what resources/opportunities are available for differentiation in the classroom for high ability students: Schools have different approaches to meeting the needs of high ability students. Ask about what kinds of opportunities are available in the classroom and are/may be used to meet your child’s needs for challenge.
  • Investigate Opportunities for Acceleration: If insufficient challenge is an ongoing issue for your child, the teacher or the principal may be able to provide information about other academic options, such as acceleration.* Are there opportunities for grade-level and/or content acceleration at your school? Is this an appropriate option for your child?

*For a recent study on the benefits of acceleration, see:

Assouline, Susan G., Susan G. Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, and Miraca U. M. Gross. A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students. IA City, IA: Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, U of Iowa, 2015. Print.

Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, The University of Iowa