Not so easy as 1-2-3
June 24, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

My six-year old son just received his "report card". It says he is "blocked", that he can't count or write his name in cursive. I don't know what to do to help him.

He is finishing three years in the French version of pre-school before going to proper school next year. Everything in the report is fine, except he can't count past eight and doesn't know the alphabet. Last week (two weeks before the end of school) the teacher told us he has a "block" and needs to work harder. I have no idea what this work could be -- he writes out letters, copies them from books, spends hours looking at books, can concoct intricate stories and retell, ad nauseum, the plot of anything he has watched.

Does anyone have experience of what could cause this or what we can do to help. He has seen a speech therapist, who in France also deal with learning issues, and she does not think he is dyslexic. I don't want my happy, inventive little boy to be put in a box that says he's lazy or "blocked", so any suggestions would be wonderful.
posted by bwonder2 to Education (28 answers total)
No offense, but have you tried teaching him to count, and to memorize the alphabet?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:01 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

You need to meet with this teacher and find out more. It sounds like you don't have all the information for where the teacher is coming from with that comment. What has the teacher done to help? What does the teacher suggest? Why did you send him to a speech therapist?

That being said - you are the parent. You know what's best for your child, trust your instincts and keep working with him.
posted by quodlibet at 9:06 AM on June 24, 2010

Do you have any facilities in your school system, or in your region, for assessing a child for learning disabilities? If so I would have him assessed, and if he tests positive for any learning disabilities research them and follow whatever are the recommended treatments/teaching methods for that. If it should turn out that he doesn't have learning disabilities, maybe you just need to work with him at home to help him catch up. I'd recommend that you do so a half hour to an hour five days a week. At the end of kindergarten, a child should know his alphabet and be able to count to 50. In first grade, at six, I learned to read and was given an assignment requiring me to write out the numbers from one to a thousand in a notebook. Your son is falling behind and the sooner he receives the extra help or intervention he needs, the better.
posted by orange swan at 9:10 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Play games with him that will help those skills. Simple card games can help with counting, and there are other games that teach the alphabet. If you give him intensive tutoring it will probably make him les happy and inventive.

On the other hand, if normal teaching techniques are not working for him, you may want to consider putting him into that special education "box". It could be that there are some developmental or learning issues going on here. Our son was in full-time special ed from age 3 to 7, then part time, then just some special help. By the time he entered middle school, the special help was no longer needed and he ended up taking college-level classes in high school and just completed his freshman year at college.

We were dismayed to realize he had developmental problems, but it was only by dealing with it constructively that he's been able to move past these problems and is, to all appearances, a normal adult (even though he still has a few minor language problems that most don't notice). If normal schooling is not getting him the basics, you may want to look at a full battery of testing for learning disabilities.
posted by Doohickie at 9:11 AM on June 24, 2010

Six-year-olds are supposed to write cursive? Wow.

What happens when you count with him or sing the ABC's? Can he write when he is at home?
posted by radioamy at 9:12 AM on June 24, 2010

One thing I thought I would add: In our experience, the strongest advocates for a child with a learning disability are his parents. The "system" will not take a strong personal interest in his progress. If he ends up needing some special help, it will be incumbent on you to help determine what help he needs and that he gets the appropriate level of help. You need to take a very active role in this and do not let it slide or trust teachers to do what is best.
posted by Doohickie at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

This steams me up. The first time they are telling you of this is when they send a report card home before the summer? They wouldn't work with him any harder, yet they want a six-year old to work harder? No offense intended, but this school is merde.

Memorizing the alphabet is just that, memorization. You could work with him with flash cards or come up with some sort of fun game that rewards him. In english, there is the alphabet song that my kids memorized without even knowing its context and later put the two together.

Your son sounds perfectly normal. Many children get to kindergarten without yet having been able to read or knowing all their numbers and letters. I would work with him yourself low key this summer just to see if you think he is capable of learning more and assuming he is, leave it up to his next school to determine the course of action.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Blocked" is an ugly word. I can understand you not wanting your little boy put in a box of any kind, and I personally just think some children take longer to do certain tasks than others. Also, boys' linguistic skills, in general, typically kick in later than girls. Six seems very young to me for someone to be making judgments about what he 'should' be able to do.

I'm a voracious reader and writer and read to my kids every night from the time they were born, but they just weren't ready to read, for example, until one day it seemed to "click" for them. And then my youngest became a voracious reader, and recently he completed NaNoWriMo, something I haven't managed to do!

Your son sounds creative and imaginative (makes up stories and remembers intricate plots of things he loves), so maybe he is getting bored with all the rote memory stuff.

That being said, of course there are some issues that could cause this. My nephew, who is brilliant with computers and very high-functioning when it comes to memory and recall (remembering entire stories by heart like your boy), is also autistic. So, there could be issues, but I think that if you have had your son checked out for dyslexia and he seems okay, until and unless other issues come up, accept that he is moving at his own pace and try not to worry too much--kids pick up on anxiety and tend to live up--or down--to the expectations of the adults around them.
posted by misha at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh, and if you have other concerns about your son's abilities (writing cursive at six is not really something that would concern me AT ALL, but developmental milestones being missed might), then of course you will want to be an advocate for your son and have him assessed. Other posters are right when they say the school system is lacking in this regard.

But if you, his mother, who is with him every day, see nothing worrisome, this seems like just an anomaly to me.
posted by misha at 9:22 AM on June 24, 2010

I'd look at a broad variety of medical causes, for example does he need ear tubes? He can't count if he can't hear how to do it. Also, how are his skills in English? Maybe Le Francais is tripping him up. Finally, I know you care a lot but he's six... He still learns best through play and repetition at this point. He doesn't need to apply to Harvard next year! Don't beat yourself up. Really, I don't mean that sarcastically. The calmer and kinder you are the easier this will be on him.
posted by ShadePlant at 9:28 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm the mother of three grown kids and have advanced degrees in education and lots of teaching experience.

Although I am American I went to French schools from the age of 4 to 18 in France and in other countries. They never taught us to print, we started right with cursive-back then we used pens dipped in inkwells full of lavender ink. Boys tend to have a harder time with handwriting than girls, and cursive is harder than print.

Learning to read in French is much easier than learning to read in English because it's pretty much phonetic. In contrast, English is just totally weird.

Maybe calling a kid "blocked" is some French psychobabble thing.

Does your son have access to a computer? Does he recognize letters on the keyboard? Can he type his own name? Does he play any games on it that teach him letters and numbers? Is he bilingual? Do you speak French at home?

I don't think you should worry too much. Just focus more on these skills over the summer. Kids grow in fits and spurts, their skills do too.

The Rudolph Steiner people (with whom I have a host of issues...) contend that children are not ready to read until their baby teeth start falling out. There may be some sense to this.

Feeel free to contact me here. Bonne chance!
posted by mareli at 9:29 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wow! I cannot see a teacher using the word "Blocked" to describe a child to his parent. Ouch! I agree with other comments that it's ridiculous that you have heard nothing until the end of the year.

I also agree that it's best to avoid anxiety about the situation because he will pick up on it, and that will make him stress about school a lot.

Just practice with him a home a little this summer, don't be too intense with it--just go until he gets distracted and pick it up again later.

Also, bear in mind that children who grow up in bilingual households tend to pick up each language a little slower then children only raised with a single language.

Additionally, boys do tend to pick up linguistic and fine motor skills a little more slowly because they are more physical than girls.

Sometimes teachers are wrong case in point: my sister was placed in the same 'box' in school as a young child. The teachers told her and my parents that she was 'limited' (read: Blocked) and would struggle intellectually throughout school and not perform to expectation. She did struggle with traditional learning systems, but this taught her how to work for what she wants in life. By high school, she was in the top 5% of her class, she earned a full-ride academic scholarship to our State University and now she is in graduate school for physical therapy at the University of Utah and is doing a residency for the Mayo Clinic next summer-- that all sounds pretty limited and underachieving, huh?

It just goes to show that sometimes teachers don't know anything about your kid. You have to remember that they have dozens of children who are all different in the class and only one lesson plan. If a child does not fit into the system, they are labeled as dumb. the teacher doesn't really have time to assist individual children because these overworked teachers often have too much to do. Their word is not gospel is all I am trying to say.

Work with the boy a little at home and he'll be just fine. Good Luck!
posted by neanderloid at 10:01 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

My children learned to count higher than twenty, and recite and read the ABCs, at home. They're four now, and these things were part of our daily routing (singing the ABCs, pointing them out on paper, rewarding them with marbles they have to count.)

In pre-school, kids can learn a lot about social skills, and how to use the things they're learning to better effect, but a lot of the fundamentals are better taught at home. Given his age, I would suggest you start working these missing pieces of his fundamentals into his home life more -- after all, the ABCs and numbers are, ultimately, arbitrary symbols that have to be learned by rote, and many pre-schools don't focus on such things.

In short, it's entirely possible the teacher is used to kids coming in who already learned these fundamentals at home, and doesn't think it necessary to work hard to teach them. Slipstreaming those things into his daily home life and having a chat with his teacher to find out what his/her specific expectations are should help.

and to be clear, I'm not saying this is your fault or anything like that -- it's just that sometimes schools don't teach what we expect them to teach, and we don't teach what they expect us to teach, and so gaps appear that need to be addressed -- and oddly you're probably in a better position to teach to this particular gap than his teacher is
posted by davejay at 10:09 AM on June 24, 2010

er, routine, not routing.
posted by davejay at 10:10 AM on June 24, 2010

I have a very bright five year old who up until fairly recently could not keep his numbers straight. He knew them all, but when he tried to count, they got mixed up. We combined counting with clean-up time and it clicked for him. I started by telling him to put away five things. We counted them together as he did it. If there was still a mess (and there always is), he put away another five things. The next day, he had to put away six things. Every day he had to count one number higher and put away one more thing. He eventually got up up to counting 35 things by himself before he caught on that cleaning up isn't such a fun game after all - even with the counting. By that point, counting was no longer a problem (but we still struggle with clean-up time).
posted by Dojie at 10:11 AM on June 24, 2010

It's a little surprising that they waited until now to tell you that he's having difficulty; my first thought is whether he actually can't do these things or whether no one has seen him do these things at school. Does he count/know the alphabet when he's with you?

If he is, in fact, having trouble with writing, it might be that his fine motor development isn't at the point where writing is easy and fluid for him, which is normal. Writing is a huge drag when it makes your hand hurt. I work with kids who have developmental delays and I remember in particular one bright little lady who wept with frustration over writing letters. One summer we backed off the dreaded writing a bit and worked on fun things that would make her hands stronger and more coordinated: play doh, pop beads, hiding marbles in putty, cutting paper to make paper chains, etc. Once her hands were a little stronger, writing became a lot easier and less frustrating.

Good luck. I very much doubt that your son is "lazy" or "blocked."
posted by corey flood at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh - on the "blocked" thing. I don't really see the objection to the teacher using that term, although you probably should have gotten some notice before the end of the school year. Sometimes kids get stuck learning new things and it takes them a while to get past whatever is giving them trouble. I wouldn't interpret it as implying that there is anything wrong with your son - just that he's not making progress in those areas right now. Not that he can't do it at all - just that he's not getting it yet.

If he can copy all the letters and knows their names when he sees them, he most likely just needs repetition. Singing the alphabet song over and over again, signing his name (like a real artist!) on every picture he draws over the summer (even if he gets it wrong sometimes), and playing fun simple counting games with you (give me 10 kisses, count all the white cars you see, how many blocks are in the tower, how many times can you jump) will probably get him past his block.
posted by Dojie at 10:28 AM on June 24, 2010

First up, here's a quick description of where your son should be: Literacy Milestones: Age 6. Check it out -- does he seem like he's within the right range of skills for his age? Is he slightly behind? Very far behind? As the article says, "keep in mind that children vary a great deal in how they develop and learn."

If you have concerns that your son might be falling behind, you should definitely talk to an expert about learning disabilities. There are many, many kinds of learning disabilities besides dyslexia, and the research on them has advanced a lot in the past 30 years. If you're not sure that his speech therapist's training is up-to-date, look for a second opinion. If you were in the US, you'd be looking for a licensed psychologist who specializes in learning disabilities. You should ask around for something equivalent. I'd also suggest that you ...

- Read up on learning disabilities. LDonline is a great resource -- I'd start with the articles What Is a Learning Disability? and Why Children Succeed or Fail at Reading, which gives a good overview of the issues surrounding LD in early education.
- Don't delay. If your child is lagging now, that lag will only get worse with time. It is generally easier and more effective to address learning disabilities early.

Good luck!
posted by ourobouros at 10:31 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm not an educator, just a parent of a four-year-old. She has responded really well to learning games over rote learning activities. That is to say, making learning time into playtime has helped her retain and look forward to it. We've also integrated learning into everyday activities.

With counting, for example, you could tickle your little boy ten times while counting and laughing together, or throw a ball back and forth fifteen times, etc. During snack time, he could pick out 12 nuts. If you exercise, he can help you count your reps. You can count stairs together as you go up and down them, or count how many times he goes down the slide. He can begin to learn math this way, too: add or take items away as you share them or as he eats them, for example.

Is there an alphabet song in French? Song can make learning concepts come much easier. I have to confess, though, when it came to learning the alphabet and beginning sight words, I utilized some learning videos: alphabet via the highly annoying LeapFrog video, and sight words via the charming Preschool Prep Sight Words videos, all in English, alas.

You can also take advantage of computer games and educational activity books to help him along. My little girl loves spending time with me doing the activity books together; she'd do it all day long if she could. The great thing about them is that they help you to pinpoint areas that could use a little more focus, and you can bring that into daily activities, like I mentioned above. (We're working on the concepts of Less Than and More Than, for example.) We type words together on the computer, as well, and occasionally write letters together to her Daddy on paper, which get delivered by hand in an envelope.

We haven't been doing this yet, but for learning to write, my mom used to write several iterations of letters and words as a series of dots that I could trace by myself. I'm told I enjoyed it quite a bit.

You may want to get him evaluated, but don't feel huge amounts of anxiety or guilt about what he does or doesn't know at this point. Kids learn at such different rates. The best you can do for him is give him a loving, supportive environment, and make learning a positive experience.
posted by moira at 10:45 AM on June 24, 2010

radioamy: "Six-year-olds are supposed to write cursive? Wow."

When I was six in an Irish elementary ("National") school, the first thing the school did when we advanced into First Class (ie, ages 6-7) was to insist that every student get a fountain pen, ink cartridges, lots of blotting paper, cursive practice books, and learn to forget our early attempts at "block writing" and to learn "joined writing". What I remember most about those days were the Ink Wars, trying to hide behind my blotting paper and failing miserably. Also, I recall my acquisition of writing was delayed significantly, and I never really learned block writing until High School (and as a consequence, the results are pretty miserable).

Maybe this school has a similar policy?
posted by meehawl at 10:50 AM on June 24, 2010

I'm not a parent nor am I familiar with the French education system. But I am surprised that this came up only now at the end of the school year. Writing in cursive maybe but were you unaware of his counting abilities?
posted by 6550 at 11:52 AM on June 24, 2010

When I was a kid, the school gave you a badge once you had learned the alphabet and could recite it to the teacher's satisfaction.

Despite being a bright kid, I was the very last person in my class to earn my alphabet badge. Had somebody asked her, the teacher might well have described me as having a "block" about the whole thing and she would have been right. I did have a block and it was this...

The teacher wanted me to say the alphabet wrong!

When my parents recited the alphabet to me at home, they pronounced the lower case letter U as "uh". When my teacher said it, she pronounced it as "ooh". Obviously this is a textbook case of No Big Deal, but to my five year old self? This was motherfucking Sophie's Choice.

If I said it the teacher's way, I would be like I was disowning my parents. I would have been rejecting them and their teachings so completely I could never go home again and would have to live at the school and sleep in the cleaning supplies cupboard at night and it would be creepy and probably monsters would eat me.

If I said it my parents way, then I would be correcting a teacher, which would be so disrespectful and rude that they would probably reverse the ban on corporal punishment in schools, just so the teacher could give me the cane and then afterwards I would get kicked out of school and my parents would be so ashamed they would disown me and I would have to wander the streets alone and sleep under bridges and probably monsters would eat me.

So every time I was called up to the teacher's desk to say my alphabet, I would stutter or stare out the window or taper off midway through. And every time, the teacher would mark me down in her book as a kid who still did not know the alphabet, despite the fact that at home I was independently reading The Hobbit, (which probably explains the fixation on monsters.)

I guess my point is that kids get weird ideas sometimes and can create insurmountable obstacles out of nowhere. It's probably worth sitting down with your son, asking what he thinks the problem is and making it clear that no matter how he answers, he won't be killed and eaten by orcs.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:54 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. We have worked on letters and numbers, doing pretty much everything that's been suggested, counting as we go. My instinct is he'll do it when he's ready, and of course I've noticed the counting thing, but it didn't bother me, and since we heard nothing from the school, then I figured he was fine.

I didn't mention he also had trouble learning the names of colours, so much we thought he was colour blind, but he's not and now he knows their names (mostly, sometimes it's a guess). I think they are concepts, the naming of abstract things, that just aren't important to him. His father has synesthesia, where colours have smells and sounds, so maybe it's something like that.
Thanks again, I'll particularly try some more computer things and be relaxed about it -- there's a lot of school to go yet!
posted by bwonder2 at 12:49 PM on June 24, 2010

For some reason, blocked sounds like testing fear. Perhaps he just freezes up when he is at school. Seconding everyone who said to speak with the teacher and she what the problem really is.
posted by aetg at 1:22 PM on June 24, 2010

It sounds to me like the teacher is a little wacky. You indicate your son can come up with creative stories. If he's creative and verbal, it sounds like he's on the right track. Maybe he's not ready for rote memorization yet. Maybe he is uninterested in memorizing the alphabet and numbers and instead uses his intelligence for more creative ventures.

One idea to help him learn would be to ask him to tell you a simple story that you can write out for him. Then, see if he'll draw a picture related to the story. Finally, show him how his own words look on the paper, go over the letters and sound the words out. Rote memorization and copying letters out of books is very dull, especially for more creative kids.

When I was 6, I had a teacher who proclaimed my reader skills would stagnate until I could learn to cut straight. Today, I have a graduate degree and had very little trouble with school after the incident with my wacky teacher.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:25 PM on June 24, 2010

Agree with parakeetdog
posted by A189Nut at 2:31 PM on June 24, 2010

Parakeetdog brings up a good point. The thing about those sight words videos I mentioned is they didn't just show and repeat words. They made words into characters, and gave them little environments with mini-stories, of a sort. They each had their own voice and their own little tune.

It's reminiscent of a medical terminology class I once took, that used the same concept by turning the word fragments into pictures and then combining them in odd little stories. The pictures made no logical sense, and didn't actually connect with the function of the word, but they pretty easily burned themselves into my mind and really helped the process.

Is there a way your boy could invent stories about numbers and letters? Make maps with word-rivers, number-castles, letter-knights?
posted by moira at 2:48 PM on June 24, 2010

Note that "blocked" in French seems to be more casual than in English. "Faire un blocage" on/about something is just a way to say that one refuses (consciously or not) to overcome a problem, for psychological reasons. In fact it's often used humorously, to indicate some silly negative obsession. In other words, it's really not meant as a serious psychological assessment. It's "your kid has this small hurdle to overcome, he should work on this a little bit". Just googling for the expression seems to show that French kids "bloquent" a lot, at least according to their parents!
posted by elgilito at 10:48 AM on June 26, 2010

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