DEAR DR. FOURNIER: I have a 10-year-old boy in the fourth grade. He is working on fractions in school. He has an attitude problem, and I can't seem to get through to him. The teacher gave him two pages of rules to follow. He won't write things down she tells him to write down, which are important. He doesn't want to study or do homework. What am I to do with this child?
The assessment: When children fail to do what adults want them to do, they may be branded as having an "attitude problem." It is a very common complaint among parents who a generation ago would have used the term "disobedient."An attitude is a difficult thing to change. Many parents and teachers try lecturing, moralizing, screaming, punishing or rewarding. Even when children are faced with being hurt, criticized or rejected, they usually continue to stand their ground and refuse to do their work.
In trying to understand a child with an "attitude problem," you may need to think back to when these school-related problems began.
Most kindergarten students enter school expecting to be "the best," eagerly waving their arms in the air to answer questions and to be recognized. As these children go through school, some begin to hold back, and by fourth grade they may literally hide under their chairs, chew on their fingernails or escape into daydreams. The main change is that their actions - or lack of actions - cry out, "please don't recognize me." Enter the "attitude problem."
The kindergarten freedom of expressing ideas is gone. The older students view schoolwork as copying what's important (to whom?) and remembering facts (do I understand them?), and applying these to situations that have little or nothing to do with their own lives and ideas. The freedom to express "me" has been replaced with rules that are the strings adults pull to make the students say or do what is desired.
Course of action: Copying rules may be the obedient task, but if this is all your child does, will fractions ever come to life?
As parents, it is not your job to teach fractions at home. But as the monitor of your child's homework, you can set up a structure with your child's teacher to bridge the communications gap between home and school and to help your child rediscover the freedom of learning.
Start by talking to your child's teacher. Recognize that an "attitude" not to do is often the child's way of saying, "I don't know how to do," or "I don't understand how this has anything to do with me." Together, establish a strategy that your child will carry out.
The strategy must allow your child to discover and express his own ideas rather than just copying someone else's rules. Once you and the teacher decide on a home-and-school strategy, the teacher should explain it to your child. You should tell your child that you will monitor his progress at home to make sure he carries out the strategy.
What to do: Here is one possible strategy for this situation:
Buy your child a math notebook, preferably one in which the pages are stitched together and not just spiral-bound. Your child will always have his work in one place and he can go back and see his progress. Have your child come up with a name for his notebook, such as "Fractions My Way," and ask him to make a colorful cover for it.
At the beginning of each new unit, your child will write the rules given in class - but in his own way. This assures that your child thinks as he writes and is not just copying information. In the notebook, the lefthand page is for your child to do his math problems. The righthand page is for your child to make a drawing of one idea from the school problems. For example, "one-fourth" could be a great big lollipop that lasts for four days, showing how much your child would eat in one day.
Your child will show you his math notebook each night, and he should understand that homework is not complete until you have drawn a "happy face" or other symbol of approval on the work. Your job is to recognize your child's effort and responsibility and to make sure he is ready for school the next day. It's the teacher's job to correct the homework.
As your child fills in the notebook, he will end up with an album of his own fraction creations. He can proudly boast, "These are my fractions," and his attitude should begin to shift to "I will do" because "I know I can do." As your child progresses, he will not have to draw fractions on paper but will be able to visualize math concepts as he goes to higher-level learning.