Inconsistent Performance: Sometimes It’s Up and Down and All Over the Map

Inconsistent performance is the hobgoblin of all students struggling with learning disabilities. But, it seems to particularly plague Gifted LD students.

A recent conversation with another mom** brought that point home to me with a resounding crash. Her son, a senior in high school, who had finally been identified with dysgraphia and ADHD in 6th grade, had been invited in November to apply for his high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society (“NHS”). She was ecstatic for her son, especially as he had worked incredibly hard the prior year and managed to pull his grades up to the minimum cumulative GPA of 3.4 required by the NHS. Getting in would be the final feather in his cap and would serve only to validate the “Yes, I can!!” attitude her son had espoused on his applications to three carefully selected colleges, including a nationally top-ranked engineering university.

Unfortunately, her wish was not to be granted. Citing “a lack of academic character,” the high school faculty selection committee turned down her son’s application. Her son initially puzzled over the rejection letter’s doublespeak and then shrugged it off, saying it was just as well as he would have less than half a year to complete the chapter’s required 20 hours of community service – a feat that would be a stretch given his heavy academic load and internship class. His mom, however, was livid, as she knew precisely what the letter referred to.

Obviously, the faculty selection committee had access to the entirety of her son’s grade transcripts, not just the final grades, which were sent with her son’s college applications. Therefore, they knew about the incredibly rocky start that her son had experienced when he first entered high school, and that his grades that year had been literally all over the map. They would also know about the recent, somewhat disastrous progress report. However, they would not have taken into account that her son’s final grades for that particular quarter no way resembled that progress report due to the combination of redoubled effort on the part of her son and understanding teachers willing to give her son the benefit of the doubt as well as a second chance to prove himself.

In short, the only thing the faculty selection committee saw was the inconsistency that made up her son’s stellar grade point average. And, as Dr. Mel Levine, the nationally known pediatric education expert, frequently notes in his books and seminars, the faculty selection committee did what most teachers and schools do, they held up the inconsistency as evidence for the prosecution. ‘Hey,’ they contend, ‘we know he can do it. We’ve seen him do it! Obviously, he’s not really trying!’

In the eyes of such teachers and schools, the negativity generated by a student’s inconsistency outweighs the positives of everything else – in this instance, the fact that the student had managed, despite the odds, to accomplish an overall GPA that many average students would give their eye teeth for. Talk about the quintessential double-edged sword!!

In discussing the issue of consistency, Dr. Levine uses the analogy of the basketball player trying to make a free throw during a game, citing it as “one of the purest tests of attention control.” He then goes on to compare his free throwing basketball player to a math student with attention problems, noting that students “with attention problems don’t have trouble all the time.”

Obviously, the player knows how to sink a free throw. In a similar vein, obviously the student knows how to solve a particular multi-step math problem. However, when a basketball player misses the free throw, does his coach berate him saying, “’If you know how to sink a free throw, why can’t you do it all the time?!? I think you’re really NOT TRYING!!’ Of course not.

And yet the math teacher of the student solving the multi-step math problem on a test will say precisely that. ‘I know you know this material,’ they say, ‘How could you make such a stupid mistake? Obviously, you’re really not trying!!’

Just like the basketball coach who would never chastise his player for not trying, every parent of a Gifted LD child knows this type of blame game is totally unproductive. Rather, Dr. Levine points out, it’s better to “talk about the inconsistency as the issue and figure out how to increase the consistency of one’s performance.”

In the instance of the basketball player, maybe he just had an all around bad game and the coach just chalks it up to one of those things. For the math student, we all have days when nothing seems to go right. If that seems to be the case, then go through the test, make sure the student really understands what the mistakes are, make sure he used all his testing strategies and accommodations, and if he did, chalk it up to a Bad Hair Day.

Agonizing over split milk isn’t going to make the student feel better about his performance. Even those of us without learning disabilities have days when the world seems to be against us. Rather than berating the student for their failings, it’s far better to help the student see the inconsistency as an aberration and allow them to move on.

Or, maybe the player needs to change his shooting style to achieve more consistency in his performance. The same may be the case for the math student. Just as a coach would work with his player on feeling his way through the free throw shot, a teacher needs to enlist the student in figuring out their inconsistencies. States Dr. Levine, this means “having students become detectives into the contributing factors to their inconsistency and helping them to look for strategies to overcome the bad days.”

For instance, maybe in an effort to avoid writing everything down, the student tried to do too much of the problem in his head. Perhaps using a computer or one of the functional calculators would solve the writing problem. Or maybe the student rushed through his reading of the problem and missed that last critical piece of the direction – “Simplify all answers.” Perhaps slowing down and using a highlighter, or different colored highlighters, to highlight the various portions of the problem would help clarify the problems sequence and directions.

No matter what the solution, Dr. Levine recommends that “any interventions that are implemented should always be worded as ‘experiments,’ otherwise the strategy can become another failure if it doesn’t work out in the kid’s mind.” This particular aspect is critical because students realize that an experiment can always be changed based on the outcome.

In the end, it helps to try not to dwell too much on the up and down nature of your child’s academic life. Find activities outside of academia that can make your child feel successful and give them the feel-good vibes they need to move forward and put those inconsistent Bad Hair Days behind them.

Try to help your child see that inconsistent performance is just that – inconsistent performance. Everybody, with or without learning disabilities, has good days and bad days. Sometimes it seems like the bad days outnumber the good; but, sometimes we can turn bad days into good days by pointing out the lessons learned.

Inconsistency is all a matter of perspective. In our family, this is usually summed up by a question often asked just after someone has finished relating what seems like an especially rotten day – “So, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

** The facts related here are actually a composite of situations experienced by several students that were either told to me by friends, encountered in my practice, or related to me through other special education resources.

Joan Kasura is a parent advocate/attorney and a professional writer on special education law issues. Over the last ten years, her work had appeared in both national and highly regarded regional special education publications, including Baltimore’s Child: A Special Edition, and 2e: Twice Exceptional Newsletter. Through her workshop forum, “The Write Stuff,” she conducts workshops and seminars to assist parents in navigating the paperwork maze of special education. She currently is working on a book, Letters to School, to accompany her interactive workshop of the same name. In her advocacy practice, she specializes in assisting parents of students identified as Gifted LD as well as consulting with parents on their written communication problems with their schools.