August 31, 2008

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Dr. James Dobson


QUESTION: Schools are asked to accomplish many things on behalf of our kids today. They are even expected to teach them how to have sex without spreading disease. What part of the curriculum would you give the greatest priority?

DR. DOBSON: Schools that try to do everything may wind up doing very little. That's why I believe we should give priority to the academic fundamentals -- what used to be called "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic." Of those three, the most important is basic literacy. An appalling number of students graduating from high school can't even read the employment page of the newspaper or comprehend an elementary book. Every one of those young men and women will suffer years of pain and embarrassment because of our failure. That misery starts at a very young age.

A tenth grade boy was once referred to me because he was dropping out of school. I asked why he was quitting and he said with great passion, "I've been miserable since first grade. I've felt embarrassed and stupid every year. I've had to stand up and read, but I can't even understand a second grade book. You people have had your last laugh at me. I'm getting out." I told him I didn't blame him for the way he felt; his suffering was our responsibility.

Teaching children to read should be "Job One" for educators. Giving boys and girls that basic skill is the foundation on which other learning is built. Unfortunately, millions of young people are still functionally illiterate after completing 12 years of schooling and receiving high school diplomas. There is no excuse for this failure.

Research shows that every student, with very few exceptions, can be taught to read if the task is approached creatively and individually. Admittedly, some can't learn in group settings because their minds wander and they don't ask questions as readily. They require one-on-one instruction from trained reading specialists. It is expensive for schools to support these remedial teachers, but no expenditure would be more helpful. Special techniques, teaching machines, and behavior modification techniques can work in individual cases. Whatever is required, we must provide it.

Furthermore, the sooner this help can be given, the better for the emotional and academic well-being of the child. By the fourth or fifth grades, he or she has already suffered the humiliation of reading failure.

QUESTION: My older child is a great student and earns straight A's year after year. Her younger sister, now in the sixth grade, is completely bored in school and won't even try. The frustrating thing is that the younger girl is probably brighter than her older sister. Why would she refuse to apply her ability like this?

DR. DOBSON: There could be many reasons for her academic disinterest, but let me suggest the most probable explanation. Children will often refuse to compete when they think they are likely to place second instead of first. Therefore, a younger child may avoid challenging an older sibling in his area of greatest strength. If Son Number One is a great athlete, then Son Number Two may be more interested in collecting butterflies. If Daughter Number One is an accomplished pianist, then Daughter Number Two may be a boy-crazy goof-off.

This rule does not always hold true, of course, depending on the child's fear of failure and the way he estimates his chances of successful competition. If his confidence is high, he may blatantly wade into the territory owned by big brother, determined to do even better. However, the more typical response is to seek new areas of compensation which are not yet dominated by a family superstar.

If this explanation fits the behavior of your younger daughter, then it would be wise to accept something less than perfection from her school performance. Every child need not fit the same mold -- nor can we force them to do so.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995( Questions and answers are excerpted from "Solid Answers" and "Bringing Up Boys," both published by Tyndale House.

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