Written by Les Dahl on July 8, 2015. Posted in Education, Learning Solutions

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Children must be fully present and fully engaged to learn. They must be keenly focused on the task at hand and actively involved in the process. This is a challenge in the classroom and home school environment.

Before I begin a coaching program with a student, I establish the “Rules of Engagement.” These guidelines also frame my mindset as I home-school my two grandchildren.


“We are not in a race, so we will take our time.
We will progress at a speed that is comfortable FOR YOU.
If I go too fast, let me know and we’ll slow down.”

Remember Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare? ‘Slow but steady wins the race’ is foundational for creating learners.

We live in a fast-pace, press-the-button, instant-response culture. Our tolerance threshold is so low that we almost lose it if success is delayed a few seconds—heaven forbid, a few minutes!

This impatience pervades the classroom. After just one attempt at solving a math problem, hands fly in the air with a complaining, “I’m no good at math!” At the first difficult word, an agitated “I can’t read!” is muttered. Teachers add to the mix—“I just explained it to you!”—expecting children to grasp quickly what seems so easy, to them, that is! We forget this is a child we are instructing, not an adult!

An inflexible curriculum that requires each student, whether hare or tortoise, to keep to a lock-step schedule compounds the problem. Consequently, the ‘bright’ hare, who catches on quickly, is under-challenged and bored, while the tortoise, who may be equally ‘bright’ but simply needs more time to process the learning task, is overwhelmed and frustrated. Learners are created when each child finds his groove — his individual pace, rhythm, style and challenge level.

Several important dynamics emerge as children find their groove. Almost imperceptibly the plodding tortoise gains momentum. He may never run as fast as the hare, but how much he learns along the way is amazing. No longer off-balance nor out-of-step, our tortoise displays surprising endurance, sticking to the task right to the finish line! Relaxed and comfortable, he finds learning enjoyable.

With enjoyment comes motivation, and with motivation comes courage to try new things…and even make mistakes!


“We learn best from mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
A mistake simply tells us to look at the question again,
perhaps from a different angle.
A mistake shows me how I can better help you learn.
If you don’t make any mistakes, you really don’t need me!”

A most difficult land-mine to diffuse is the fear of making mistakes. As early as kindergarten children devise coping strategies to divert the ire of teacher and the ridicule of peers. By grade 4, these coping mechanisms can become devastating learning disabilities.

Surprisingly, one such is the alphabet song— “A-B-C-D-E-F-G . . . Now I know my A-B-C’s!” Most of us grew up with it and even learned to read in spite of it. I became painfully aware of its destructive side while working with Benny (not his real name).

At 9 years old, Benny could not read even at a kindergarten level, but he assured me he knew the alphabet. We started at that level to build his vocabulary. After several unsuccessful guesses at ‘reading’ the word goat, I asked Benny to spell the word. Dumbfounded, I listened as he sang the alphabet song. At ‘g’, he announced proudly, “That’s a ‘g’, sir.” He sang each letter of the word. Benny knew the alphabet song, but he did not know the alphabet!

Children need to be able to make mistakes—lots of them—without fear of reprimand and ridicule.

Reflect on how many great scientific discoveries have come ‘by mistake’! In science labs ‘trial and error’ is lauded as ‘experimentation’, but in school it is marked with a big red ‘X’ accompanied often by verbal, emotional and sometimes physical punishment! That rigid, old-style learning regimen must be replaced with a child-friendly, mistakes-are-welcome learning zone!

My grandson taught me a positive alternative. Each word on our daily spelling test is marked right or wrong immediately before proceeding to the next word. Andres enters a check or an X with his pencil, thus eliminating the intimidating red X from teacher. But he is just beginning to spell, makes lots of mistakes and is easily discouraged.

After struggling with a word, Andres checked the word and asked, “I got that one, right?”

“Well,” I began, “you got it, but I had to help you.”

His face fell as he reached for his eraser.

“Leave the check mark there,” I interrupted. “You did get it right with my help. Let’s put a circle around the check mark to remind us that we need to practice that word a little more.”

He thought that was a great idea.

He doesn’t need an X to know whether he spelt the word correctly or not. He also knows that with more practice, he will spell it correctly. Together we discovered a way that motivates him to learn.


“I love to learn because learning is fun.
So, when we are no longer having fun,
we will take a break or focus on something else
and come back to this learning task later.”

Confident learners emerge in a comfortable, safe and enjoyable learning environment. Removing pressure, intimidation and fear gives way to purposeful, spontaneous learning.


(Special acknowledgement to Gerry Grant, my mentor/presenter at the Fundamentals of Davis Dyslexia Correction Workshop. He introduced and practiced these “rules” throughout the workshop. I adapted them to become my own “Rules of Engagement”. Thanks, Gerry, for the great idea.)

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