Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

Raising a Quitter

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No parent sets out to raise a quitter, and no teacher sets out to nurture one. Your lip curls just at the suggestion, doesn't it?

My thoughts on this loaded subject crystallized when the following questions from a reporter came across my desk: "When is it okay for a child to quit a sport or activity? How can adults determine the difference between a truly bad fit and a child who simply wants to stop when the going gets tough, only to start another activity and repeat the cycle?"

I had to tuck my own lip back in place as I considered what we define as a "quitter." Definitions can be subjective. With so many everyday words, like quit, our attitudes about parenting often collide with objective evaluation of what might be best for our child. Consider the quitter: quitting is a behavior, and behavior is a parenting/teaching paradox. When our children or students behave "well" or "appropriately," we take pride in them, and in ourselves for having so ably taught them. But when they present us with "undesirable" behavior, we are less likely to look within our own behaviors to find the influence on theirs. Yet the seeds that sow a quitter may indeed come from our hand.

Think about it: a house will "quit" if placed on ground that cannot withstand its weight and structure. A seed will "quit" if buried in soil that lacks the composition or nutrients to nurture growth. Bread dough will "quit" if you forget to add yeast to the mix or if the kitchen is too cold for it to rise. The house, the seed and the bread dough all fail to behave as we wish them to. But inadequately prepared and supported, they were destined to "quit." The responsibility for that lies with those who neglected to lay the foundation, cultivate the soil, and provide essential ingredients and conditions.

Many learning differences set up obstacles to finding activities in which children with special needs can participate successfully. Some common hindrances: narrow range of interests, motor difficulties, lack of social skills, language processing challenges. Like many parents, I invested Herculean effort in finding activities and environments in which my narrow interest kids with autism/ADHD could succeed. But find them I did; both of my sons can look back on childhoods that included sports, camps, theater, Scouts, and art. I attribute much of their success to meticulous childcentered selection of their activities, incorporating all of these elements: their interest level, their buy-in, their social, emotional and physical readiness, the social and physical environment of the activity, and ongoing collaboration with the instructor or coach. But just as big a part of the mix was our encouraging them to develop a mindset of exploration, sans stigmatizing language like "quitting."

We raise quitters when we choose to see serial sampling of a range of activities as "quitting." What if we let go of focusing on what we perceive as a premature end point of an experience and focus instead on the process itself? What if we call that process "exploring" or "discovery"? We presume no outcomes, but grant our young explorer the option of reaching a point where continuing on either appeals or doesn't. We acknowledge that remaining in an unenjoyable or stress-inducing activity postpones the time when our explorer can try again. A healthy spirit of exploration doesn't impose a sense of failure when honest effort doesn't produce a presupposed outcome. The process and the experience of exploration can feel noble, expansive and enervating. We take that brave-new-world thrill away from our children when we decree that each and every activity must be one our child will stick with until some pre-ordained end point (the last game, the recital, the merit badge).

In our house, the agreement with my sons was that if after a reasonable trial period of reasonable effort (usually two weeks) they hated the activity, they did not have to continue. Years later, I can recall their successes, but I can't easily conjure their "quitting" because we simply didn't see it that way. Ironically, knowing that they always had an out seemed to make it easier to stick with something that was of dubious enjoyment, as in "I'll finish the season because I'm part of the team, but I don't want to play soccer again." They also learned to identify legitimate reasons for halting an activity: "I'm too tired to do my homework after practice and it's stressing me out." And they learned to find something they liked in the activity, even if it wasn't the activity itself: "I don't want to go on with guitar lessons after summer is over, but I sure like the teacher; he's fun to be with."

When a child wants to quit because "the going has gotten tough," and if quitting has become a cycle, it's imperative to know, not guess at, why. Some possible reasons:

Inadequate teaching/bad social dynamic. There are people who teach well, and there are people who may be highly accomplished at their art or skill, but leave something to be desired as teachers, particularly of students with special needs. At six, my son demonstrated an eye for color and composition in his drawing, so we enrolled him in an after school class taught by a local artist. After a few sessions the instructor called me, snarling that he could not teach "this child." My son was too, shall we say, energetic for the artist's temperament and classroom expectations. When I phoned the director of the after-school program, she said, "I teach art class too. I'm not an artist, just a teacher who likes art, and I like your son. I would love to have him in my class." You can guess the outcome. The teacher who loved art, not the artist trying to teach, was the key to my son's successful participation.

Activity or instruction moves too fast. Often, a child with autism may be perfectly capable of the activity itself, but a plethora of rules to remember, or instructions barked from afar, impede her ability to participate.

Cutting into homework time or sleep, creating stress, anxiety.

The pace of exploration can also be a factor in whether enjoyment comes from an activity. Some children may be able to handle soccer, Scouts, and church choir, but limiting your child to one well-chosen activity at a time may better his chances of success.

Baby, it's you. Sometimes we push our child toward activities that fit our profile and schedule rather than his. We need to plug an after-school hole on Thursdays, or the piano teacher is our mother's best friend and will give us a discount. I read a smug little article recently advising parents of students with ADHD to improve their child's ability to focus by signing him or her up for chess club. Having raised a child with ADHD, I can think of few things more disruptive to a chess club than a child with ADHD who has no interest in chess and has just spent six hours trying to focus. Activities that do not place the child's abilities or interests foremost are breeding grounds for quitters.

I knew we had instilled a healthy attitude about leaving activities when after six years, my son decided to not return to the school track team. "I've had a great time with it," he said, "but I'm ready to retire."

Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm's books and articles have informed and delighted millions in more than nineteen languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a ForeWord Book of Year Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, Learning magazine's Teacher's Choice Award, two iParenting Media awards, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. She is a contributor to numerous publications, classrooms, conferences and websites worldwide. See www.ellennotbohm.com for more.

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