Ask the Teacher: Avoiding the Comparison Trap

Ask the Teacher is a monthly column from our magazine, written by Deb Krupowicz, a mother of four who holds a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. Deb has over twenty years of experience teaching preschool, elementary and middle school students. Please send your questions to her at [email protected].                        

My youngest daughter constantly compares herself to her older brothers and sister, and considers herself a failure because she cannot do what they can do. We have done our best to reassure her, but she gets so frustrated. How can we help? 

Looking up to older siblings offers many benefits, but there are many challenges, as well. It is very difficult to conceptualize time at a young age, and even more so to associate the development of a particular skill or talent with the years that it takes to develop. Share the story “Not Yet,” by Lisa Cox and Lori Hockema, with your daughter. This book illustrates beautifully how adopting the attitude of patience and perseverance can be embraced in a positive way, especially when the time has just not quite come for a young person’s achievements to be fully realized. 

As you continue to reassure her, help her find an area of interest that is unique for her. The opportunity to develop an interest that no one else in the family shares will eliminate the comparisons she naturally makes and will provide the chance for her to be the resident expert despite her younger age.  

Is it reasonable for a fifth grader to still request a bedtime story? It seems to me that our son should have outgrown this by now. I am happy to read with him, but I wonder if I should be encouraging more independence. 

Your son’s desire for a bedtime story is very reasonable! It may not be as much the reading of the story that he wants as the quiet, stress-free, one-on-one time with you. The older kids get, the harder that time is to come by as time demands and social expectations change. That routine of a shared bedtime story likely has gone beyond the pleasure of a book to include a time for individualized attention and a wonderful way to wind down from the day. 

Select more challenging books, and share the role of reader. This will help your son continue to develop his own reading fluency and comprehension. To further capitalize on this time, together dissect the characters and discuss their behaviors deeply. Use the context of the story and the behaviors of the characters to talk about various ways to solve a problem, what other solutions could have been considered, and how effective those other options may have been.  

Expand your reading time to include newspaper and magazine articles, as well as those from a variety of other sources. The topics can include everything from interesting hobbies, careers and accomplishments of others to timely issues in politics, culture and religion. This will not only allow your son an opportunity to consider important things, but will also help him learn to articulate his own responses to them in a reasoned, rational way.  

My eighth-grade daughter likes most of what she does at school, but she complains about grammar instruction. She just does not see the value in it. When she asked me directly if I really thought it was important, I could not give her a good answer. Exactly what is the purpose of grammar?  

Grammar is the vocabulary used to discuss and understand language. If we eliminated all math vocabulary, for example, learning math concepts would be nearly impossible. Imagine trying to learn math without the following words: addition, division, acute angles, equation. Grammar provides the same kind of foundation for language. 

The vocabulary of grammar, and the understanding of it, allows students to learn to write well as teachers provide more challenging writing assignments and good feedback for improvement. As your daughter continues her education, the simple words and sentences that she used to communicate as a younger student no longer suffice. Complex ideas require more complicated sentence structure and more advanced word choice. Clear understanding of number and tense leads to more effectively communicated ideas. Mastering grammar is foundational for effective writing; effective writing is essential for strong communication of ideas; solid communication of ideas is key to authentic academic success. 

In addition to paving the way to good writing, understanding grammar helps with foreign language study. When a student has a sound grasp of what makes his or her first language work, he or she will more quickly grasp the fundamentals of a second language. Otherwise, the attempt to master a second language begins on shaky ground and can be a source of great frustration. 

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