My child is smart, but learning is a struggle!

Tanya Kemp

In last month’s blog post I talked about intrinsic motivation. It got me to thinking about motivation in general. So often parents and teachers describe children as unmotivated or “lazy “ or  “unwilling to try”.

First off I think describing a child as ‘lazy’ is a very lazy assessment of what is happening…because I know that there is always more to that story. For example avoidance that may look like just not getting started or finishing tasks are much less about being lazy and unmotivated and much more about executive function challenges. Or a child who isn’t following directions is less likely to be defiant and more likely to have trouble processing auditory information or working memory impairments. A child who runs out of the class, tips a desk over or throws things is likely having a sensory meltdown as opposed to throwing a fit because he doesn’t like to do English language Arts.

Autistic kids work extremely hard in the school environment, and even when they enjoy aspects of school, the environment is still overwhelming to them on many levels. Sensory processing and motor differences, executive function challenges, emotional and social differences, interoception difficulties and a very sensitive nervous system, are all things that can get in the way of  child engaging with learning and showing what they know. These differences require adaptations and accommodations before we can being to comment on a child’s intelligence or motivation to engage with learning material.

Autistic and ADHD learners have an interest-based mind. This means that they will really only be able to attend to subjects or topics that they find interesting. It may be important for them to learn certain concepts, but that won’t be what motivates them. Their interest is the driving force in what they attend to and if learning is built around these areas of interest, motivation an attention will come easily. However, when we ask these kids to learn or even do anything only because it is important, they will have real difficulty wrapping their heads around that. Some simply might not be able to do it, while others will try their absolute best and expend endless amounts of energy trying to  learn in this way….and then in the end learn nothing anyway.

We need to understand this about the neurodivergent Autistic and ADHD brain to know that forcing a child down a path that makes no sense to them, does nothing to educate them. It is a waste of energy for both teacher and child. It furthermore is ableist and teaches a child that how they are wired to think is wrong. 

If a child is interested and good at the two types of learning public schools tend to focus on: verbal linguistic and logical/math, they will have an easy time following along and staying interested, focused and motivated at school. However – many kids are not wired to learn best in that way. So teaching and testing in those forms of intelligence only, doesn’t give those kids their time to shine ☺

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is very interesting in this regard. It outlines eight forms of intelligence which can serve a helpful broader framework on understanding hwo to connect and teach differently wired kids. Everyone will be strong in at least one of these forms of intelligence, but likely more than one. Gearing learning in the child’s areas of strength is much more likely to give that child the motivation to learn and opportunities to be competent. Tying these areas of strength to a child’s interests is a recipe for success.

The eight forms of intelligence are:

This theory effectively offers eight pathways to learning – and if we can’t seem to reach a child through one pathway, there are others to try. 

You can read more about each form of intelligence here:

Implications for Parents and Teachers

You can take a quiz to figure out what your dominant areas of intelligence are:

You might be able to do it for your kids as well, which may help everyone understand each other a little bit better!

Daily Connection:

Conversation Starter: What are you good at. What is the person to your right good at?

Daily Compassion:

Those who look for beauty, find it.

Look for something beautiful that you may have been ignoring up until this moment. Take a moment to describe its beauty.

Now imagine someone is describing YOUR beauty. What would they be saying?