How to Know if Kids are Falling Behind, and What to Do About It
Published: April 7, 2021
By: Richard Rusczyk
Author Website: Click to Visit
Q&A with Richard Rusczyk, the founder of AoPS
Q: What can parents do to make sure their kids aren’t falling behind right now?
Stay informed and establish routines to keep your kids from falling behind. Whatever you or your children’s schools are doing right now, you’ll need to check in a lot more than you might have in normal times. Kids are going to have rough patches just like nearly everyone has during the pandemic; you want to catch them early. Motivation to get started with their studies can be a challenge. Provide structure to their (and your!) days, just like they (and you!) have in a normal school year. Routine helps ground habits and helps your child (and you!) get started on tasks that otherwise fall prey to procrastination.
Even with the check-ups and the routine, there may be times when your child still struggles and needs you to intervene because their usual academic supports aren’t available. Maybe you’re not a natural teacher and don’t have a bag of tricks to pull from. Fortunately, there are now many, many resources available, and many communities of parents going through the same struggles as you are. Poke around the internet. Consult with other parents. Above all, experiment. People learn in many different ways, which is why we at Art of Problem Solving deliver our materials and services in so many different media. Maybe your child is a reader and needs books. Maybe they only learn while struggling with problems, so skip the books and give them challenging problems to solve. Maybe they listen well but lose focus when reading — look for videos online. Maybe they need to be with peers, even if that has to be in an online school.
Keep trying until you find what works for them. And for you.
Q: How can parents tell if their student is being challenged enough?
If your child aces every assignment and every test, your job isn’t finished. In fact, it might just be beginning. Those perfect scores are a sign that your child needs more. Just as the kid who wins every chess match needs tougher competition, or the child who plays each piece flawlessly needs more challenging music to master, your child with the high-test scores is telling you, “I’m capable of much more.” That’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem to solve.
But perfect test scores are not the only sign to watch for. Lack of challenge can result in boredom, which can manifest in low performance or disruptive behavior. While these are not sure-fire signs of a lack of challenge, either can be a call to show the child something more challenging, more complex. More interesting.
You’ll know you’re on the right path when you see the lights turn on — when they have those “ah-ha!” moments that are so rewarding after minutes, or even hours, of struggle. That sort of joy is infectious and addictive. Whenever you see your child encounter it, feed it. It’s a sign that they’ve found something they really love. Something that they will be willing to grapple with even when it’s not working out. Something that’s so compelling that you’re going to have to step in and tell them it’s time to go to bed. When that happens, you’ve probably solved the problem.
Q: There’s a national concern about learning loss right now. What are the skills we should be the most concerned about our kids falling behind in?
We most need to worry about kids falling behind in acquiring the skills they’re going to need in the professional world they’ll soon enter. However, the world changes so fast that we have no idea what skills those are. So, they need the ability to develop new skills as those skills are needed. They need to learn how to learn whatever they’ll need to solve problems they’ve never seen before. That’s what we mean by problem solving. We teach problem solving through math at Art of Problem Solving because these general problem-solving skills transfer to so many other disciplines, and because less-general math skills are critical in so many fields. Math also offers quick feedback, so students can feel confident that they’re making progress.
But in many professions, solving problems is only the beginning. It’s no use having great ideas if you can’t convince anyone else that they’re great. That’s where communication skills come in. The world is increasingly collaborative, and communication fuels collaboration. So, keep your children reading and writing. Just as with problem solving skills, communication skills are cumulative, and developed over long periods of time.
Keep your kids moving forward on these two critical, cumulative skills, and don’t worry as much about fact-gathering. If they hone their problem solving and communication skills, they’ll absorb plenty of facts as they go, and be able to gather others down the line when they’re needed.
Q: What’s the secret to helping kids understand really advanced math concepts?
Ask questions. We most deeply own the knowledge we discover on our own, and we cherish hard-won gains much more than that which comes easily. Support your child in their struggles not by telling them the answers, but by encouraging them to understand that this frustration is where all the learning happens. Draw parallels to other activities where they naturally accept failure and difficulty as part of the learning process, such as sports, music, or even video games.
And keep asking questions. What have you tried? What other similar problems have you solved? Where else have you looked for help? These questions serve a dual purpose. Not only will they help the student solve their immediate problem, but they serve as a model for the student to follow on their own in the future. A large part of our mission as educators and parents is to empower kids with the skills and strategies, they need to flourish without us guiding the way.