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Avoiding a Downward Spiral

Somewhere between second and fourth grade, parents and teachers begin to observe a 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.

This 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.

The Matthew Effect

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.

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.

Self-Perpetuating Cycle

Unfortunately, once students begin to fall behind, a self-perpetuating cycle can start.  Failure erodes confidence and less enthusiasm for the task at hand, and less effort.  A loss of confidence can become a fear of failure, an unwillingness to try new things.  Failure can cause humiliation, a lack of self-esteem and avoidance behavior.

It’s true that children who fall behind often have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning delays that will make any comeback hard. But the change in attitude, the give up, plays a massive role also.

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 Eroding Confidence?

Although every child is different, there are some general signs of eroding confidence, i.e., that your child is in the wrong side 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
  • Avoidance behavior – reading out loud, doing homework

Eroding confidence can bleed over into general self-confidence with these symptoms:

  • Withdrawing from social interactions and activities
  • A lack of self-esteem and self-worth
  • Negative self-talk and negative thoughts
  • Low motivation and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Avoiding challenges and difficulty
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty coping with failure or mistakes
  • Difficulty expressing feelings or opinions
  • Increased vulnerability to stress, anxiety, and depression

It’s important to note that these signs can manifest differently in different children and may not be present in every child experiencing a loss of confidence. It’s also important to remember that these signs can be caused by a variety of factors, not just difficulty with your child’s day job, learning.

What Can You 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.

First off, consult with a mental health professional if you have concerns about your child’s mental well-being.


Focusing on academics, one response is to hold your child back a year, so-called retention. The argument is that if the assignments are easier the second time around, the confidence tank and refill.  However, the research on the effectiveness of retention is mixed. Some studies have found that retention can lead to improved academic performance and increased likelihood of graduating from high school. However, other studies have found that retention can have negative effects on a child’s academic and social development, leading to lower self-esteem, increased frustration and disengagement, and higher rates of dropping out of school.

One of the main concerns with retention is that it may not address the underlying reasons for a child’s poor academic performance. Children who are held back a year may continue to struggle academically if the root causes of their difficulties, such as learning disabilities, lack of access to resources or support, or socio-economic factors are not addressed.

Additionally, retention may be more beneficial for children who are just below grade level and have a high chance of catching up with their peers, rather than those who are significantly behind.

Developing Strengths

Finding strengths and working on those can be tremendously helpful.  While confidence does tend to be task-specific – you are bolder and more a of risk taker in an activity you know you are good at.  More on using strengths to build confidence here.

Another common avenue is tutoring. But tutoring does not address the source of declining confidence and skill that is at the heart of a downward trend.

Learning Interventions

The only real way to get back on the rich get richer side of the Matthew Effect is to resolve the delays that are holding your child back.  Your child knows things are not easy, and no amount of encouragement and positivity can make up for a learning gap.

And so the most effective response to declining confidence related to reading or learning is a learning intervention, grade-level remediation (either at home or school, but ideally both!) that gets at the source of difficulty, once and for all.

Fast ForWord software by Gemm Learning is one such program.

To find out if our solution can help your child and to have your questions answered, start with a free consult with a Gemm Learning team member.