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Back To School Success: Overcoming the Mental Challenge of a New Learning Stage


The new school year is here and we’re back in-person. It looks like things are finally returning to normal in Hong Kong. This includes all the anxiety and stress of starting in a new grade. Moving on from Grade 3 to 4 may not feel like a big jump, after all, your child is still in primary school, but we have had parents come with lots of concerns once school starts. A big one is – “Why is my child suddenly getting lower grades than last year? Why aren’t they doing as well as they used to?” It is because your child has entered an academic transition, i.e. a new learning stage.

The stages of learning

While there is extensive research on how learning occurs in stages, be it Piaget's theory of cognitive development or Erikson’s Nine Stages of Psychosocial Development, it is evident that learning and development occurs by building atop the existing foundation.

A strong foundation matters

Imagine, building a skyscraper. You will not start on the plumbing and interiors without ensuring the ground is level and ready to start building upon. Similarly, the learning in a school situation is additive, and requires a strong understanding and recall of prior information in order to further build next steps. So, if you find your child is struggling with new materials, the first step is to check and ensure they have not forgotten previous learnings. With the long break, it’s easy to succumb to the summer slump so there's a need to dig in and refurbish, renovate and reinforce the existing structure – making it stronger for the years to come.

Upgrading and Upscaling

Additionally, with each academic transition, your child is upgrading their skyscraper of knowledge with better mechanical, electrical and plumbing. They are adding new and improved concepts to their schema, and the knowledge they are learning can be replacing or upgrading prior learning. This can, therefore, take time to sink in as their knowledge bank is upscaled, too.

For example, the expansion of your child’s understanding of the universe from atoms as the smallest measurable component to then breaking it down to protons, neutrons and electrons, and then finally gaining exposure to quarks. While this is new information that refutes and replaces your child’s prior understanding, the basic knowledge must be there in order to comprehend the increasingly complex concepts. With time and greater exposure provided by the teachers, children are slowly but surely able to conceptualize the new learning more concretely, thereby creating new schema and adjusting to their new grade.

the basic knowledge must be there in order to comprehend the increasingly complex concepts

Unique finishings

To further the skyscraper metaphor, another component of academic transitioning is the decoration and finishings of the skyscraper. With each child holding unique interests and expertise, they are likely to be attracted to different subjects and as they progress through school, they are given more opportunities to define their own schedule. By adding new areas of passion, whether it is through choosing a language or subject or joining clubs or activities, they are modelling and moulding their skyscraper to represent themselves. This can be cognitively taxing as new synapses are being created and therefore requires times and energy to solidify the connections.

Dialogue is a builder

Ultimately, we want to prepare our children with skyscrapers that are sturdy, reflect themselves and have a strong basis of Science, Maths, Language, PE and Social Studies, in order to always be able to renovate or build further. This requires not just supporting the building process but also being patient when the results are not showing. You might be concerned about your child’s grade, but I promise – so are they. It can be mentally and emotionally vulnerable for them to be in a new grade and not perform like they used to. Dialogue builds better skyscrapers of knowledge. So engage in dialogue, discuss the different learning patterns and how ultimately you care not about how the skyscraper looks or how long it took to build, but rather if it will be standing for a long time to come.

Dialogue builds better skyscrapers of knowledge.

We'd love to hear from you about your challenges and wins as parents, guardians or educators. Leave us a comment.

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