How Childrens' Attitudes Affect School Success

Andrew is intelligent, capable and creative. He loves science, comic books and computer games. He also loves to give his teacher a headache. Because Andrew is intelligent, capable and creative, his teacher expects him to do well in school. Andrew scrapes by with Cs and an occasional B and has even made one D. Why? Andrew has an attitude problem. He does the work he enjoys and dismisses anything else as a waste of time.

Andrew's attitude, not his ability, is what frustrates his teacher. "The attitude that upsets me the most," says Dr. Saundra DiPento, "is students who choose only to get by but don't put their full potential to its maximum use. I think we are giving the message in America that getting by is acceptable."

Sadie is also intelligent, capable and creative. She loves reading, horses and Barbie dolls. Her parents are heartbroken because she is doing so poorly in school. She reads all the time, her teacher likes her and she always does her homework. What is wrong? Sadie also has an attitude problem. She's afraid. She's afraid she'll say the wrong thing, so she seldom speaks up in class, even if she has a question. She hates math and considers herself a failure. She does her homework even if she doesn't understand it. She's afraid to take risks, so she tries to fade into the background during group work, computer class and science.

These are just two examples of students with lots of potential and an attitude that is preventing them from being successful. I could have talked about Nick, who thinks his beautiful singing voice will bring him so much fame and fortune that he won't need "all this school stuff." Or John, whose mind has turned his minor disability into an insurmountable obstacle to success. There are literally thousands of children who enter school each day ready to fail because of their attitude toward school, life, parents and themselves.

A child's attitude is often a more accurate predictor of school success than cognitive ability. "Attitude is everything", according to Tommy Edwards, retired Oklahoma schoolteacher. "Personality and a good attitude can take people a long way toward success in life. I can look back over the years and see brilliant students I have taught who didn't get far in life."

Webster lists seven meanings for the word "attitude." There are three that I think relate to school success.

  • (4) a: a mental position with regard to a fact or state b: a feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.
  • (6):an organismic state of readiness to respond in a characteristic way to a stimulus (as an object, concept, or situation)
  • (7): a:a negative or hostile state of mind b: a cocky or arrogant manner.

Andrew has adopted the mental position that anything worth doing must be enjoyable. Nice work if you can get it, but Andrew has to learn that all of his schoolwork is important. He has to devote as much time and effort to math, language arts and social studies as he does to science. He might even be persuaded that art and music are important. The key to changing Andrew's attitude is to help him see how all of his studies can enhance his enjoyment of science. He must be able to read well in order to understand science. He must be able to write well in order to convey his ideas about science to others. He must be able to understand math in order to comprehend many of the formulas and ideas of science. He must understand history to appreciate how scientific thought has evolved. As for art and music, you can encourage him to read about Leonardo De Vinci, Renee Descartes, Pythagoras or Einstein. Scientists have traditionally used art to convey their ideas.

Sadie is in a constant state of readinesscalled "fight or flight." In frightening situations our primal response is to either stand and fight or run away. Sadie has chosen to run away from anything she perceives as difficult (math) or frightening (new). She knows in her own mind that she is going to embarrass herself, look stupid in front of her peers or disappoint her teacher and parents. The key to changing her attitude is to help her take small, manageable risks and build confidence in her ability to succeed or fail. Sometimes we are so intent on teaching our children how to succeed that we never mention what they are supposed to do if they fail. Sadie needs to know that she is still a good person and a good student and will accepted by others even when she doesn't do everything equally well. She needs to know how to tackle difficult tasks and break them down into smaller components that she understands.

I didn't mention Jake earlier, because we all know him. He's the poster boy for cocky or arrogant manner. The one who says, "I'm not going to learn and you can't make me!" He may have a lot in common with Nick, who has his life figured out and doesn't want to hear any other ideas. Or he may have been so hurt by someone or some experience that he doesn't want to risk being vulnerable again. He may be hiding a terrible secret, like the fact that he can't read. Or he may be like Shawn, a student I encountered a few years ago. His mother was a principal, so Shawn thought he was above reproach. There are as many reasons for an arrogant manner as there are children, so it is often the most difficult attitude to change. But it is possible.

The key to changing the attitudes of children like Jake and Nick is to understand the child first, get to know the reasons behind their attitudes and then try to help them. This may require time, observation, infinite patience and even counseling. However, the results will benefit everyone involved.

Education is changing and evolving into something very different from our childhood experience. We live in a world overflowing information. We can no longer hope to teach our children one tenth of what they need to know. Instead, we need to concentrate on developing students who know how to work with people, how to find information and how to get things done. Students need to be cooperative, creative, inventive, understanding, willing to work, respectful of the rights of others and determined to succeed, even if success requires hard work and a change in their attitude. Attitude, not ability, is the real key to school success.

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