Why Your Child Shuts Down and How to Respond

For many children, shutdowns are a last resort, a way out of an overwhelming situation.

Children want to please, and they understand that shutting down does not please parents or teachers.  And yet for many, it’s a common occurrence. If you are the parent of a child with learning difficulties you know all about a shut down learner.  You or the teacher are talking faster than she can process, reading out loud is humiliating, the homework assignment is too hard or taking forever to complete.

And so in self-defense, to preserve self-esteem and/or to maintain just an ounce of dignity a natural response is to shut down.  Rather than face continuing failure, frustration or have to deal with your obvious disappointment in his performance, opting out is a more attractive course of action.  He knows you will be unhappy about it, but the alternative is worse.

All Types of Learners Can Become Resistant

Shut down learners are not just children with a learning diagnosis like APD or dyslexia.  Consider this story.

So far this school year, Katrina had been struggling in mathematics class. It was as if the moment she walked through the classroom door, she couldn’t ‘turn on’ her math brain.

However, turning ‘on’ her brain for other subjects OK, for now.

But math was different.

Yesterday, she was in math class, and had been staring at the textbook and making no sense at all of the processes she needed to master. Seeing her furrowed brow, her teacher had discretely walked up to her, crouched by her desk and asked her how she was going.

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

He took a breath then, mentally broke down the steps in his mind, then focused on what Katrina needed to do first. Simple steps.

“What’s x plus x?” he asked.

Katrina shrugged her shoulders.

“Ok, then, what’s one plus one,” the teacher asked softly.

Katrina looked down. She made no response. She stayed like that for most of the rest of the lesson.

The internal turmoil

Today, when she walked into class, she felt the crushing reminder of what had happened yesterday. Opening her book was easy enough, but she had no confidence she could open her mind to tackle more math today. Shame, frustration, and anger are bubbling away, but her peers and the teacher are none the wiser. She just sat in her seat, not even taking out her textbook and work.

Katrina is showing the signs of a shut down learner.

An authority on the subject, psychologist and an assistant professor in paediatrics, Dr Richard Selznick, coined that term – shut down learner – and has written a book about it. It’s incredibly common in today’s classrooms and affects a diverse range of students, often those with intellectual learning disabilities or needs.

You’ll see shut down learners in upper elementary school and their numbers grow in high school.

Recognizing a Shut Down Learner

Selznick describes a shut down learner as a student as:

  • Having a sense they’re increasingly disconnected, discouraged and lack motivation in their learning
  • Needing help to build their fundamental reading, writing and spelling skills and in the interim, their self-esteem takes a blow
  • Disliking reading
  • Hating writing
  • Increasingly avoiding school tasks including homework despite parental urging
  • Becoming angrier towards school

Autism shut down … a little different

A shut down learner is someone in the context of school and school-related activities. That means it’s not quite the same thing as the ‘shut downs’ someone on the autism spectrum may experience. Such shutdowns can happen in broader contexts.

Students on the autism spectrum tend to have shutdowns that progress from frustration to an abnormal stress response then to a shut down. An auditory processing disorder might be at fault – they’re having trouble processing what they hear. With the avoidance behaviour, there may be disruption, violence or destruction. Whereas typically with other learners not on the autism spectrum, their ‘shut down’ may be more internalised so they appear passive and disengaged.

Physiology might drive autistic shutdowns. Consider, a child on the spectrum who ‘shuts down’ during a learning task by falling asleep, not easy to do in pretence. That’s not selective mutism where a child refuses point blank to do a learning task. There they have a choice.

Why Shutdowns Are OK

Some researchers argue that shut downs are helpful, maybe even necessary, for those who find a situation too overwhelming or tricky. In fact, if we expand our view to humans and animals, consider the role of sleep, hibernation and exhaustion as types of behavioral shut down. It sounds crude, but there may be a good reason for opting out.

Usually, the reason is they’re discouraged academically. The shut down helps them save face on one level, and, in the short term, it’s a way to cope.

But avoidance isn’t helpful for the teacher or parent who’s keen for the learning task to be completed. Nor is it helpful for your child and their learning.

So, what are your options? There are a few below, but not in priority order.

How to manage shut downs as a parent – draw on their past

Draw on your own insights and understanding about how your child behaves now and has in the past.

Recognise that shut down can happen as early as in preschool or kindergarten. Think back to when your child was there, were there bouts of what seemed like stubbornness getting in the way of their learning or engaging with particular activities? Some defiance?

How were these episodes handled in their earlier years? Consider what worked back then for you, their carers or educators to boost compliance and engagement. Also, what have you tried since then that seemed to work? What were the signs that your child’s level of frustration was increasing? Did you get a sense there was a pattern, that certain things would ‘set them off’ onto a trajectory into shut down mode? What about your own reactions?

Think about the conversations you’ve had with your child about their shutdowns. How do they make sense of it? Do they have a level of awareness about those shut downs and why they happen? Do you need to eke the reasons out of them through gentle conversation, perhaps?

Help a Shut Down Learner – Zero in on the Source

Use your insights (and those of others familiar with your child in learning environments) to identify what sets them off. Is it reading? Is it taking in verbal instructions without any visual reinforcement?

Maybe deadlines make them put their learning brakes on. Are they not hearing or processing verbal instructions well or in a timely manner?

If they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, it won’t be helpful to judge their behavior as defiant and intentional. Try to avoid judgements and focus on how to circumvent shut down.

Aim to be proactive to anticipate possible problems. Have your arsenal of strategies such as the tips in this article to guide them to more positive behaviour.

Tackling Reading Issues

If the need to read raises their hackles, so to speak, try these approaches to get them back on track.

Get your own copy of the book they have to read for school. Read it together at home or perhaps you can read it aloud to them, a chunk each night at the same time in a quiet zone. Segue to have them read to you eventually.

Use highlighter pens to help unpack the book. Perhaps a different colour for each of the main characters in the book. Mark key points, not slabs of text.

Importantly, make this a relaxing and fun time with your child. Look forward to it as much as you want them to.

And really, if the reading problems are persistent, consider an intervention like Gemm Learning.

Break out the Popcorn

A powerful storyline can help motivate learners to get back on track – or at least think about it. Here’s a list of the top six motivational movies for students. You’d recognize some of these titles: Good Will Hunting, The Great Debaters, The Theory of Everything, The Social Network, The Breakfast Club and Dead Poets’ Society.

Chilling out watching a movie with your ‘shut down learner’ child takes the focus off the frustration. They might see themselves portrayed in that movie. It could offer you an opportunity to debrief about it with them and understand more about their shut down issues.

Get The Teacher Onside

Give their teacher insights into what sets your child off and gets them out of shut down mode. What might help is encouraging the teacher to give one instruction at a time and explaining tasks visually and verbally. They could also write the day’s or lesson’s program on the board and go through it with students, then asking if learners have any questions. Allow for smoother transitions between activities with forewarnings, it might means popping some transitionary music on, for example.

It may sound like you’re trying to tell the teacher how to do his or her job but take a moment here. Teachers’ workloads are incredibly crammed full, they barely have time to think. Each lesson, they’re making multiple decisions often on the spot. Most teachers have a lot to take on board.

Plus they have to differentiate the content they deliver for the diversity of learners in their classroom – that’s a given. In the pressure to pace through the lessons and nudge students to achieve the required learning outcomes, they may forget, take shortcuts or rush students. It’s reasonable to expect this will and can happen.

All you’re doing in spelling out these tips is letting them know how they can get the best out of your child, their learner. It’s not meant to be patronizing.

Watch What You Say

Keep your verbal requests to your child short and simple. Allow them time to process what you’re asking. Lecturing, embellishing your message or raising your voice will reduce your success. Restrain yourself to repetitions perhaps every five to 10 minutes.

When my own child shuts down while he should be doing homework, I’ll simply state a request. Then, I’ll wait patiently nearby – in the same room such as about two or more metres away. He finds my presence annoying after a minute or two, so I’ll move off. I then come back in about five minutes and simply repeat myself with a deadpan face. He can’t tell if I’m annoyed or not. I betray nothing. After a minute or so of standing again in the same room with him, more often than not, I’ll get an “Ok, ok, I’m doing it”, but he won’t move. So, I need to stay in the room until he physically starts moving. It means I usually follow him out of the room.

This may not work for you, but it’s building my patience and slowly prizing him open from these shut down modes. (It helps I’m learning languages on the Duolingo app, so I use these long moments to revise my growing lexicon in head and stave off brain-numbing boredom!) What I’m using with my son here is a consistent approach.

Consider, too rather than relying on verbal prompts to your child about what they need to do, touse charts, agendas, post it notes, calendars, and timers as extra strategies.

Build Coping Skills

That anecdote above shows a shut down learner my own coping skills. I’ve slowed right down. He knows I’m frustrated, but I’m channelling that negative energy in a constructive way. Discuss with your child what they think will help them when their learning hits a brick wall. How can they communicate that to their teacher or you?

I’ve seen different coloured stress balls or coloured cards used well in classrooms for students to communicate their readiness for learning. The student puts the ball or card out in front of them on their desk in plain view of the teacher. ‘Red’ for stuck, ‘yellow’ for not quite there yet’ and ‘green’ for I’m ready.

When your child is back in the green zone,  no longer elevated or resistant, that’s a good time to talk to them about that. Congratulate them with being ready for learning. Ask them what helped get them there this time. You’re helping them tap into their feelings and roadblocks and articulating them.

Reviewing problems with them and hearing their solutions and your own offers them pathways out of shut down for next time. I’m not assuming all learners can be ‘talked out’ of shut down as the reason may be physiological. What you’re trying to build here is awareness of the triggers as well as the ways through the shut down.

The expert in shut down learners, Dr Richard Selznick, talks about finding ways such learners can ‘buy in’ to support that helps them recharge their battery for learning. On some deep level, you’re trying to find that connection that brings your child to a better place for learning.

Multiple Shutdowns Are A Clue

If your child is a shut down learner on a regular basis, use that as a reason to take action.  Again, children want to please.  Shutdowns are a last resort.  If your child is shutting down, then there are deep seated impediments at play.

Consider taking the guesswork out of that connection and finding out if issues with reading, ADHD, executive functioning, auditory process or another learning disability/need may be getting in the way of learning engagement.

Try a free consult to see what direction to take. Gemm Learning offers a range of neuroscience based programs your child can work through from the comfort of their home to get them back on the learning track.