Did your child’s school problems explode in 3rd grade? Here’s why.

matthew effect
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Matthew Effect | Matthew Principle

Ask any Special Education Advocate, and I bet they all will tell you that they have a huge chunk of clients that are in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade. I can remember periods of time when all my clients fit into that category. Coincidence? Unfortunately, no. It’s the Matthew Effect.

The Matthew effectMatthew principle, or Matthew effect of accumulated advantage can be observed in many aspects of life and fields of activity. It is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer“.[1][2] The concept is applicable to matters of fame or status, but may also be applied literally to cumulative advantage of economic capital.

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What is the Matthew Effect?

Many people mistakenly think that it’s related to a court case about a child named Matthew.

Nope.

It’s from the Bible! Yes, really.

A sociologist coined the term in the late 1960s, and sociologically applied the Gospel of Matthew and the whole “and the rich get richer” concept to society. Yes, the rich get richer phrase came from the bible.

The Matthew Effect and Education

It’s like this. You have two kids. One does not have a reading disability; the other does. The non-learning-disabled child starts her basic reading skills as a preschooler, identifying letters and so on. She starts to build a cadre of sight words. From there, she learns to decode and understand.

The power of reading is unlocked for her. She begins to find things she enjoys reading. Once she starts school, she is able to complete her work in all of her classes. As academic demands change, she adapts and learns easily.

The child with learning disabilities, however, has a different path. Early on, they realize that they struggle with letters and words, but they aren’t mature enough to self-identify. So rather than play with toys and games that do not give them positive feedback, they choose other toys that do. This goes largely unnoticed by most parents and professionals–because the child is playing with age appropriate toys.

Once in preschool though, they cannot avoid the difficult work and they struggle. But hey, it’s just the ABCs, right?

Once they get to school, they still struggle with reading. Maybe they get RTI and maybe not. Reading is difficult because they haven’t been taught how to read in a way they can learn. So, the child avoids it.

One child builds their skills from KG through 3rd grade, another child does the bare minimum for their classwork, because it is so difficult and tiring for them to just get through the basics. While one child has absorbed what was presented to her up until now, the other child has only absorbed a small percentage.

chart explaining the matthew effect and reading skills
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Why 3rd grade?

Yes, why 3rd grade? Because, for most schools, 3rd grade is when students are expected to change. They transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

In other words, there is a significant change in academic demands in 3rd grade. Kids start to get “real” social studies and science classes. Classes that require reading skills to access the content. Gym class may now even include reading and worksheets to explain concepts, instead of just physical activities.

Now, for our struggling readers, they are not just struggling in one class-reading. They are struggling in all areas, because now all the other classes require skills that they don’t have.

And, as Ross Greene explains, when we put demands on kids, and they do not have the skills to meet those demands (and are not being taught those skills), you get behaviors. They explode.

Really, who can blame them?

So what’s a parent to do?

This is why I preach over and over….Go with your gut!

If your gut is telling you that your child needs an IEP, or needs more or different interventions, keep pushing. Do not agree to the “wait and see.” This is why I loathe the “wait and see.”

Wait and see means, let’s just let that skill deficit grow. Learn the IEP process, learn your rights, and exercise your Procedural Safeguards.

Overcoming the Matthew Effect

Time needed: 5 days.

How to Prevent the Matthew Effect for your child.

  1. Learn the IEP Process.

    Should you ask for an IEE? Do you even know what that is? Learning the IEP process will be essential.

    IEE independent education evaluation and how to request it stack of books
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  2. Find a support group.

    When your child receives a diagnosis of a learning disability, find a support or parents’ group supporting that condition. There are fantastic groups out there like Decoding Dyslexia and CHADD.

    best special needs parents facebook groups list of different groups facebook on a laptop screen
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  3. Support your child.

    I’ve heard time and time again that this whole phenomena is really deflating and depressing for kids. They feel stupid and frustrated, and might be victims of bullying. And, I’ve also heard that the only thing that worked to turn the child around psychologically was for them to learn to read. Keep communication with them open and supportive.

  4. Use whatever resources you have.

    I hate to let schools off the hook, especially when their main job is to teach kids to read. But if you have the resources to handle this privately through tutoring or private schools, do it. I mean, don’t bankrupt your family or anything, but if you have an easier path to the result, I’d take it.

  5. Go with your gut.

    Did I already say that? Well, do it again. And don’t let yourself be overcome by gaslighting. Dyslexia and learning disabilities is one of the main areas that I’ve heard the largest amount of BS.

  6. Know that this can be fixed.

    We have the science and the knowledge to teach these kids how to read. Why it’s so damn hard to access that is beyond me. But know that it’s not hopeless.

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matthew effect
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