In a response to a post on a homeschooling adopted children Yahoo group, something I wrote made me wonder. Wonder if what I wrote was correct, that is. (This happens a lot to me... I need to write to think about things and sometimes I am quite surprised at how a post ends.) Anyway, the topic at hand was the difficulties that some adopted children experience in trying to learn and retain information. My contribution to the discussion involved having observed the difference in G. and L.'s experiences compared with K. for the first two years of their lives. That it seems these little people spend the bulk of their days playing, but what is going on inside their brains is nothing short of spectacular. How else do you explain all that G. and L. can do that no one has ever directly taught them? (The spontaneous counting comes to mind as well as having caught G. very carefully writing with a pencil while saying the names of letters. The shapes didn't match the letters, but it seems a very small step to write them correctly.) What children growing up in orphanages or other unhealthy environments miss is huge.
I suggested that even if a child is 9 or 10 or 11, that somehow that child be given a chance to experience the play and exploration supported by a loving and attentive parent which they did not have in their early life. That we know the brain can re-wire itself and that by going back to catch what they missed, perhaps filling-in important pieces. I went on to say, a child raised in an orphanage has a brain wired for survival and that seemed at odds to me with a brain wired for learning.
And this is where I stopped. Did that last sentence make sense and was it true? I wasn't sure it did. One hears plenty of stories about how smart survivors are; that the ability to learn new things is what ensures their survival in a tough environment. But in my gut, I felt it was correct. There is a difference between intelligence and learning. An illiterate person can be intelligent, but perhaps had never been given the chance to learn to read. And there are certainly different types of intelligence and it doesn't all have to do with books and school-type stuff. But we desire our children to learn to read and compute because we think that it will make their lives richer, easier, and give them more opportunities.
To be in survival mode is to assume that life is precarious and that the stakes are high. Usually we are talking life or death, food or hunger, danger or safety issues. All of this involves fear. If you are working just to survive, you will most likely also be facing a lot of fear. But if we think of learning... true, deep learning... it involves a lot of failure. The scientist tries experiments which often fail; the mathematician works to solves problems often with a lot of error in the process; the writer rewrites and rewrites and rewrites; the musician practices for extended periods of time because it is the only way to train the mind and body to not make mistakes. The list goes on and on. For anyone who has achieved superiority in their field, failure of one sort or another has been a constant companion. It is through failure that we learn. I would suggest that if we do not allow ourselves the opportunity to fail, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn.
A child who has not allowed themselves to fail, because failure could have extremely dire consequences, is going to have a difficult time readjusting their way of thinking. Being asked to try and learn new things is going to be completely frightening because deep down, the child knows that they are not going to get it right the first time. They will fail. For some children they just won't try; for others, they will try too hard, not allowing any imperfection; and others will display the anger that comes from having to confront their fear. (I am somewhat well-acquainted with that last reaction.) All of this makes it difficult to learn.
I think that to go back to toddler hood isn't such a bad idea. Toddlers fail all the time, they just don't know it. They fall down, they scribble, things break. Toddlers are constantly experimenting with their world and seeing what happens. Often good things happen... they like the feel or sound or look of something and they do it over and over; or the parents make a big deal about it; or it makes someone laugh. Other times, unhappiness results... parents get angry over the writing on the wall, a toy breaks, water spills. The toddler cries and the parent comforts and life goes on. How many times does this play out in the course of a toddler's life? We are actually teaching our children it's OK to fail, to make mistakes, to not do something perfectly, yet life goes on, they are still loved, they are still safe. We are teaching them to learn.