Photo Credit: Jewish Press

*Malky is definitely her own worst enemy. Despite her intelligence and many talents, she wastes countless hours of classtime fiddling around. Her pattern is to finally settle down to a task, just when most of the class is about finished.

Homework is seldom turned in, tests are often incomplete and it comes as a surprise when now and then she produces some quality work. As a rule she is completely disorganized, with her notebooks overflowing and her supplies missing.


When Malky really makes up her mind to perform, she can excel.

Unfortunately, high-caliber work has proved to be the exception with her. Malky will continue to get failing grades until she makes up her mind to battle her lazy streak and really buckle down. I know she can do it.

The above comments were written by Malkie’s fifth-grade English teacher in an end-of-the-year student evaluation. They portrayed a bright child whose scholastic performance was greatly impaired, in her teacher’s view, due to laziness, disorganization and lack of motivation.

After meeting with Malky and her parents, and sifting through a file of past report cards and evaluations, I began to see some of the causes of her scholastic failures. They were more complex than the pat labels of “lazy” and “negative” would indicate.

Malky was an intelligent and spunky 1l-year-old with above average reading and language ability. Her scholastic output had been superior in first and second grades, taking a downturn when she hit third grade. Her performance was especially poor in spelling, math and writing. Once described as “quick-witted,” and “on the ball,” Malky was now profiled as slow-moving and unwilling to take on challenge.

Partly this was due to the increasing complexity of the subject matter, and a greater emphasis on written work which was one of Malky’s weakest points.

Before taking a closer look at the source of Malky’s difficulties, it may be helpful to conjure up a mental image of certain adults we know who, despite their talents, appear to be underachieving or under-functioning. Such an exercise can help us understand the inevitable outcome of allowing certain dysfunctions in children to wreak havoc in their lives.


World-Class Procrastinators

Have you ever had experience with a plumber who takes forever – and then not only does a shoddy job of unclogging the toilet but leaves a mess behind him? Or an accountant who keeps applying for extensions because he can’t get to your taxes?

Your experience with someone who consistently under-functions might have come in the form of a co-worker who is well-meaning and good-natured but fails to carry out her share of the workload. Or when she does pull her weight, creates such disarray you wish she had left matters alone.

It may be the person who is chronically late, always missing appointments or deadlines, or behind in housework or paying the bills. How about the friend/neighbor/family member who is quick to come up with great ideas but seldom carries any of them out?

Like the underachieving student, the countless adults who promise but don’t deliver, who just cannot seem to get the job done, are often disdained as incompetent, irresponsible and lazy. Countless domestic battles have been fought over what educational experts call “chronic output failure.”

What are the causes behind output failure? Are we discussing actual dysfunctions of the brain – or does the term merely whitewash certain flaws in character?

It depends, say experts. “Output failure may indeed stem from flaws in character as well as from the lack of basic training in childhood,” acknowledges noted pediatrician and education specialist Dr. Mel Levine in “The Myth of Laziness.

“In many other cases, however, output failure occurs when despite a person’s best efforts and most earnest intentions, one or more well-defined dysfunctions sabotage his productivity.”

“What is more, considerable evidence shows that all too often the identical dysfunctions that plague children, if left unaddressed, go on to affect adult productivity, as well.”


Problems With Time Management and Prioritizing

Students who manifest output failure may have serious problems getting organized and learning how to prioritize. They may find it disproportionately hard to put their thoughts into words – orally or in writing – to keep track of belongings, and to cope with “multi-tasking” (focusing on a project that has a number of parts to it).

Countless students like Malky (as well as many adults), lack a sense of time and timing. Their trouble with time management includes problems with punctuality, meeting deadlines and never sensing accurately how long it will take to do something.

Students like these are in a proverbial “time warp.” Some become world-class procrastinators, doing everything at the last minute, often in a state of panic.

Some have weak fine-motor coordination and find the mechanics of writing overwhelmingly difficult and tedious. Still others lack the mental energy and sufficient mental stamina to keep at a task until it is completed.

Serious efforts to tackle dysfunctions such as these in the younger years may yield significant and lasting results, experts say. Breaking the child’s difficulties down into small doses so that he no longer feels overwhelmed or despairing is one of the most effective approaches in combating the dysfunction.

An intensive evaluation uncovered Malky’s strengths and weaknesses, and explored whether there were complicating factors in her personal life. It also addressed the following key questions:

What specific forms of dysfunction are operating? Is it attention control? Is it memory or mental energy level? Is it language? Is it motor function? Is it conceptualization?


Dismantling Roadblocks

Malky’s parents capitalized on a vital tool many people overlook: the rich opportunities for scholastic reversal afforded by the summer months. I shared my findings with both Malky and her parents and together we embarked on a program of summer remediation, with both short-term and long-term goals aimed at dismantling her learning roadblocks.

Much of the emphasis was on strategies that tackled her aversion to writing, as well as her lack of “an inner clock” that contributed to so much disorganization in her life.

With Malky herself, I took away the stigma from her problems by explaining that she was not unique in her troubles, not a dumb kid or a loser. She was simply getting tripped up by certain weaknesses that would thwart anyone’s success.

I praised her for her strengths (superior reading and language skills, artistic ability, and a desire to succeed), and pointed out how we would use those very abilities to sidestep the weaknesses.

Many of the measures we mapped out, when implemented at home with children who share Malky’s difficulties, have been found to significantly upgrade classroom performance. It cannot be stressed enough how essential is the parent’s role in establishing the following routines:

Time management is one of the most important keys to enabling productivity. At least once a day, a parent and child should confer, scheduling activities over the next several days, making use of a desk calendar or chart. Before going to bed each night, the child should check off what was completed and roughly how long it took.

Reward productivity, not grades. The child should receive special recognition for handing in every assignment and logging in a decent level of study time.

Provide attractive work incentives. It is vital for the child to understand that effort pays!

Curtail all forms of overstimulation, including TV, computer games, videos and other electronic gadgets.

Arrange for optimal work conditions. Kids need to work in a quiet environment, one that is relatively distraction-free.

Help with prioritization. Sit down with your child once a week and compile a list of all the anticipated activities. Rate them in terms of how important they are, with high-priority items to be accomplished by the end of the coming week. Lower-priority ones may or may not get completed.

Help the child develop a system for organizing school papers and supplies, using color-coded folders, loose-leafs with pockets, and other strategies. Set times a few nights a week for reviewing the contents of the child’s bookbag, and deciding what to discard, what to save and how to file it away.

Break down homework tasks into small steps and increase the work load by small increments. Children like Malky tend to feel easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assignment.

In addition, isolate weak components of a child’s work. If he has trouble getting ideas into clear language, he should begin by putting down his thoughts in not very good language. The important thing is to make a start. Later he can repair and polish the wording and the mechanics. Reduce writing requirements (with the teacher’s permission) whenever possible.

Frequently, parents wonder how much they should help their children with homework. Learn how to walk the fine line between being helpful but not offering too much criticism or correction. Share in brainstorming, such as helping to pick a topic. Perhaps give the child a jump-start, such as helping her write the first sentence.

“The younger a child is, the better are his or her chances of reversing output failure and generating high productivity,” Dr. Levine reminds us. With summer approaching, a goldmine of opportunity exists for setting in motion the process that can turn around a student’s life. Seize the moment!

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].