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Helping Kids Overcome Learning Barriers

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January 10, 2018

During parent conferences for my middle-schooler, I had an enlightening experience. My daughter’s Spanish Lit teacher made a joke in Spanish about how our families often run into each other out and about. My daughter laughed and answered in kind. Her teacher turned to me with wide eyes and a grin. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard her freely speak!” he said.

I was not surprised that she doesn’t speak in class. Due to some negative experiences in elementary school, she entered middle school feeling behind and lacking confidence in her second language. Whenever I followed up with her teachers, they always assured me that she was doing fine. Still, she continues to say that she doesn’t speak Spanish well.

I assumed she was just being stubborn, or was unwilling to try. Her teacher, however, had a different explanation. He has done a lot of research on language acquisition, and he suspects that my daughter has a high affective filter. This filter acts like a wall that prevents learning. Emotional baggage, including anxiety and lack of confidence that resulted from my daughter’s elementary school experience, keeps her from speaking up in class or conversing without hesitation. I’ve seen it at home when relatives ask her a questions in Spanish, and at restaurants when it’s her turn to order. Although she tests at an advanced level, she has trouble answering simple questions or speaking up in class.

While this research focuses on language acquisition, I’m certain it applies to all types of education—and to life in general. I know that many students have math phobia, or insist they’re bad at reading. I suspect some sort of filter may even make it difficult for my son to fold his shirts—although I suspect the real issue is that he’d prefer to be doing almost anything else!

I wondered how I could apply this knowledge to other struggles in my kids’ lives. Research in affective filters shows that the best way to keep a low filter is to lower the pressure involved in potentially challenging activities. This is what happened when my daughter effortlessly chatted with her teacher in Spanish. In the classroom setting, where there are requirements, expectations, and classmates watching, pushing words past that filter takes a lot more effort than a joking exchange with a teacher and her mom. The Spanish teacher tries to get kids talking by playing popular songs and TV shows, and inviting native speakers to interact with the class. At home or in other subjects, I can try to find ways to make particular activities feel less stressful for my children. For example, my son and could tackle that dreaded laundry together while listening to his favorite music.

While research catches-up to understanding, I hope to use these ideas to lower my kids’ affective filters—or at least ease their stress!

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