Does your child come home from school, complaining that he didn’t understand what the teacher said?
Trying to explain to your child what seems to you like a simple concept can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes, no matter how many times you try to explain it – even when you get creative and break out hands-on learning materials- your child just doesn’t get it.
Both of you and your child are left feeling frustrated and angry with each other.
Understanding is not instant – it takes time.
We tend to think of understanding as something that happens right away. A story is read, a concept is explained, and boom – instant understanding. In fact, understanding is something that builds upon itself over time.
First, your child must process what he hears or sees. In this stage, he’s just taking in the information, and so at this point he is merely processing the material on a very superficial level.
Later on, he’ll spend time connecting this new information with what he already knows about the subject. He’ll ask himself, “Does this fit in with what I already know? How is it different?” After that he might mull over the subject further, processing it on a deeper level. He might take the information and apply it to a novel situation. Or he might use the information to solve a problem in a different, but related, area.
Different levels of understanding mean different reasons why your child misunderstands material.
Because there are so many levels at which understanding takes place, there are numerous places where your child can hit a roadblock in understanding what they learn. Knowing where your child hits her particular roadblock is the key to helping her understand what she learns.
Here are 3 common areas that children have trouble with:
Weak language skills
Some children have trouble understanding because they have a poor vocabulary, or they don’t understand complex sentences. Others have a good vocabulary and can understand complex sentences – but not when they have to hear a lengthy explanation. Still other children might manage fine in some classes, but fall apart when they’re forced to understand abstract concepts.
A strong memory is critical to understanding. Not only does it help your child remember concepts that are being presented to them right now, it also helps them remember related concepts and ideas that tie into what they are presently learning. Being able to tie in related concepts learned at a different time also makes for a deeper and richer understanding of the topic at hand.
It also makes it easier for children to remember what they learn, since they’re processing the material on a deeper level. Children who have trouble remembering then lose out doubly: they can’t remember what they’re learning at the moment, and they can’t use their previous knowledge of a subject to help them strengthen the new material because they can’t access it, or never learned it in the first place.
Inability to form concepts
When your child forms a concept, they are taking several pieces of information, and making a general statement about how they are alike (or different). This is also called concept formation.
Children who have trouble forming a concept can be given a dozen examples, but will still be unable to extract the general principle from them. Instead of seeing a whole from the parts, they see only the parts.
Your child’s trouble with forming concepts can show itself in different ways. Some children only have trouble in certain areas, like algebra or physics. Others need material to be presented in the way they learn best: for some that means words, and for others, pictures. Still other children may have difficulty understanding concepts that span more than one area: for example, understanding how fractions relate to decimals.
Next time when your child insists they don’t understand, try and get at the root of why they don’t understand. You can look at their overall performance in school and home to get a better idea. For example, is it only in math? Is it only when she learns new material? Does she understand better when you write it out, or draw a picture?
All of these things will take the sting out of hearing “But I just don’t understand…” and help point you and your child in the right direction.