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Teaching the Reluctant Learner

Teri Spray

One day while we were attending the Christian Ministries Convention, a friend grabbed us and said, "You own a donkey, don't you? I told the director of the Easter Production to contact you. They need a donkey for the Easter program."

For the next few weeks, we cringed each time the phone rang, fearing "they" would ask to use our donkey. About a month later the call came. We reluctantly agreed, though I encouraged them to keep searching, because this wasn't a donkey you could use without miraculous intervention. This donkey was a stallion, a BLM Rescue donkey who still had many of his own wild ideas! He is a gentle creature, but had been badly traumatized by trailers, since his most recent previous experience at loading involved the "business end" of a cattle prod!

He was thoroughly convinced that trailers ate little donkeys. For him to participate in the program, he must travel to and from the city for 5 consecutive nights. While he was there, he must walk into the sanctuary, carry "Jesus" upon his back amidst waving palms, singing choir, and playing orchestra, then walk back out of the doors, across the big, open parking lot and back into the fearsome trailer. During the next three weeks, we learned valuable lessons on schooling the reluctant learner.

Lesson 1: If at first you don't succeed, try something else.
We began by tying Addie (short for Admiral) up to the rear of our two-horse trailer and placing his only food inside the trailer. We did this for hour-long sessions morning and night. Result? After 3 days we had a very hungry, miserable donkey who dug a waist-deep hole behind the trailer!

Lesson2: Break the lesson into tiny bites.
The next morning the Lord reminded me of the ramp on our one-horse trailer. We placed the trailer in his pen and allowed him the freedom to take tiny hesitating steps into the trailer himself in order to reach his food. When a task has become overwhelming, step back and see what tiny pieces it might be broken into. For example, mulitply by skip-counting, 2-4-6-8 = 2 x 4

Lesson 2: Motivate by a real need.
Had Addie not been hungry, he would never have set foot upon the ramp of the trailer. Children may sometimes need to be motivated by circumstances (you may do this only when you do that), privileges (Yes you may… when you have…), money for needed items (small daily payments are practical, visible and meaningful). Intrinsic (self-directed) motivation comes later when character has been developed.

Lesson 3: Repetition creates routine, routine creates a habit.
Even when Addie began to take his meals in the trailer, we knew he had to repeat the process for an entire week before we could actually move the trailer with him in it. The more the learning became routine, the easier the process became. Whatever is the most difficult, that is what you need to routinize.

Lesson 4: "By the yard, it's hard; but by the inch, it's a cinch!"
The entire process of loading the donkey and leading him into the church was dependent upon a carrot one inch in front of his nose, and occasional nibbles so that he knew the carrot was real. Too often with children, we expect them to be able to take a leap in their learning and instantly become compostion writers, note takers or textbook memorizers when they have not mastered the incremental steps to achieve those goals. Small steps insure success.

Lesson 5: Keep your focus on the goal.
Constant encouragement and consistent attitudes paid off. As soon as one of us became distracted by the hustle of the environment, Addie would "shut down" and stop. When they are confused or frightened, donkeys put their heads down, brace their legs, and just stop. Children will also brace themselves and stop when they are confused and frightened. At that time it is paramount that you remember what you really are trying to accomplish.

Lesson 6: Backing up and going around can be easier than moving forward.
We found that when Addie when into a frozen, fearful stance, we could often move him backwards, turn him around and get him moving again. Children who are blocking in their learning can best be dealt with by changing something. Move them to a new location, use a different media, change subjects, change materials, or take a recess. Steer them in a different direction and try it from a different perspective later.

Lesson 7: Don't worry about what others think.
Many people laughed at us as we coaxed the donkey inch by inch into the church. The snow was falling on us and we weren't sure this was going to work at all, but Mike was persistent and diligent and did not let others affect his communication with the donkey at all. Too often we teach our children while glancing side to side. Is he reading as well as his cousin? The child next door already knows his times-tables. My parents thought he should have been reading before he turned six! et cetera, et cetera… God has instructed us not to compare ourselves (1 Sam 16:7, 2 Cor 10:13). He has individualized goals and objectives for each of us to attain here on earth.

Lesson 8: Patience pays. Anger loses.
This was my hardest lesson. When I was ready to absolutely lose any ounce of patience I had left, my anger, tears and frustration only seemed to make matters worse.

Lesson 9: Walk away from battles (for a while).
When all of our efforts seemed to be failing (it took us more than 3 hours to get Addie re-loaded the first night), the only answer was to walk away from the battle, pray, and refocus our energies. Beating the animal in anger would only worsen the problem. Children who have become defensive are great at battling. They can fight and argue for days and no one wins. When you sense an ensuing battle, it is often best the withdraw, regroup, and approach the battlezone without your weapons drawn. Communicate lovingly and directly with your child and speak without extra emotion.

Lesson 10: Firmly take control of the situation.
We later learned how to "tow" the donkey into the trailer with the truck. This became an offer he couldn't refuse. Soon he learned that resistance was futile, and cooperation was the only logical alternative. Parents have the greatest problems with children when they feel they have lost control. Don't be afraid to exercise your authority in the home. Remove the television, control freedoms, do not tolerate back-talk, temper tantrums, or rudeness. Children who are in control in their homes are terrified because they are now making the decisions.

Lesson 11: Always walk in forgiveness.
When I became angry, the solutions became impossible. When we walked in consistent forgiveness, his fear was reduced and the donkey would eventually respond.

We cannot as teachers and parents allow any unforgiveness to settle between ourselves and our children. Bitteroots will take hold, judgements will settle in and gaps will develop. We have no alternative but to walk in the forgiveness of others as Christ has forgiven us.

Admiral eventually did an "admirable" job. He proudly carried "Jesus" every night of the performance before a total of 10,000 or more spectators. Surprisingly, his shyness caused him to be a safe indoor animal. (Donkeys don't leave messes!) As a result, the Senior Pastor invited Addie to attend the cast party and he was a great hit! He loves to be petted and scratched. He has now visited a Vacation Bible School in central Denver, and has even given children donkey rides!

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