Disliking School and Losing Confidence: The Matthew Effect and Your Child

January 16, 2013 by Geoff Nixon

matthew effect

Somewhere between second and fourth grade, parents and teachers begin to observe a very noticeable difference among kids when it comes to both their academic performance and their feelings about school. Usually, the two go hand in hand. Youngsters who perform well in school find it enjoyable while those who struggle academically often dislike school. Makes sense, right? The question is, which comes first: a child’s poor academic performance or his disdain for school? Psychologist Keith Stanovich says it’s the latter and pinpoints literacy issues as the main culprit for academic failure in the early primary grades and beyond.

Stanovich was the first to coin the term “the Matthew Effect” as a way of illustrating the negative psychological effects a child experiences as a result of struggling to acquire literacy. The term has its origins in scripture, namely the verse in Matthew that reads, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath,” or in layman’s terms, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Although you can probably think of a dozen different ways that this adage can apply to our daily lives, the way it impacts young school children is of particular concern.

What is the Matthew Effect?

At some point during the early elementary years, students have to make the transition between learning to read and reading to learn. Those students who have yet to learn to read fluently begin to lag behind as more and more subject matter content is delivered through textbooks. They suddenly find themselves struggling not just in the area of Language Arts but in Science and Math as well, subjects that they may have otherwise excelled in had they not been required to read a textbook in order to learn the information. Unfortunately, once students begin to fall behind, some of them never catch up. That’s why it’s imperative that parents learn to recognize the signs of the downward side of the Matthew Effect, so that they can intervene to stop the cycle of failure and defeat that many elementary children experience.

What are the Signs of the Matthew Effect?

Although every child is different, there are some general signs of the Matthew Effect that all parents should be aware of. These include:

  • Resists new things, no longer a learning risk-taker
  • Anxiety over assignments, homework, tests
  • Suddenly dislikes school
  • A drop in grades or standardized test scores

What Can I Do to Help?

If you notice signs of a negative spiral and are worried that it may be impacting your child’s academic success or emotional wellbeing, rest assured that there are steps you can take to turn the proverbial ship around and get your child back on the path to calmer waters. That doesn’t mean there is a one-size-fits-all solution, however.

While some experts argue that retention is the answer, the data doesn’t clear show that retention makes a difference.  Most parents turn to tutoring to help their children cope, but tutoring does not address the source of declining confidence and skill that is at the heart of a downward trend.  The best answer is grade-level remediation (either at home or school, but ideally both!) that gets at the source of confidence erosion, the reading or learning delays that are undermining performance at school.  Fast ForWord software by Gemm Learning is one such program.

Nearly everyone agrees that something must be done, though. Crossing your fingers and hoping that your child catches up with his peers simply isn’t an option.