Articles are available for reprint as long as the author is acknowledged: Domenick J. Maglio Ph.D.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Students Pretending Not to Know

By Domenick J. Maglio, PhD.  Traditional Realist

Many of us have been surprised at what our children know. We cannot figure out where they could have picked up these tidbits of knowledge. Usually they are attributed to television or other types of passive learning.

The opposite phenomenon happens as well where we are positive a child knows something but acts as if she had never been exposed to the information.  It could be a momentary mental block although this is unusual in youngsters because they possess incredible memories. In well functioning families, strong fear of making a mistake would not be likely.

The act of not knowing what the child previously knew lies with her choices. A young child is asked by a parent, “what state do you live in?” The child has answered this same question on numerous occasions. Now the child looks back with a blank face as if she does not understand the language.

This type of interaction between the parent and child is commonplace. After numerous incidents parents get frustrated because they are not sure if they are going crazy or if the child is attempting to drive them there by playing dumb. Children learn early to push parent’s buttons.

When the child enters school he has a new victim: the teacher. This new, non-relative professional has to use all her skills to assess this type of student. Usually the child’s testing results will be unpredictable. When the student wants to impress the new teacher the scores will be more indicative of her ability. The opposite is the case if the student does not care one iota about the testing. Then the results of the student's scores will be lower, often significantly.

Regardless of which approach the student takes, the teacher will see inconsistency. Depending on the student's interest or mood of the day, her performance will widely vary. The teacher will have to solve the puzzle of the student knowing something at one time and not knowing it at others.

An experienced teacher develops the ability to see through a child pretending not to be able to repeat an activity, which she was able to do on command on many other occasions. Once the verdict is reached that it is the "pretending to be dumb” game, the teacher needs to confront the parent before she addresses the student putting them on the same page. It is the only way to diffuse this game.

Habits are hard to break when they are getting the outcome desired. The student is in control when the authority figure is confused. However, this can be eliminated when the consequences are reversed.

Once the parent understands the game being played by the child, the teacher has to let the student know the student's poor quality work is not due to any inability or ignorance but a willful act of defiance. This act is done not to allow authority figures to know the true functioning level of the student.

It serves two purposes for the student to hide her ability. The youngster can dictate her rate of working by lowering the level of expectation the parent and teacher should have for her. By keeping a low level of performance the child can coast with little learning effort. Secondly her peers would see her as “cool.” The more she hides her true level of functioning from parents and teachers but not from friends she would be seen as a “shrewd player” among them.

By using a straightforward observation of the child’s behavior both teacher and parent can regain control. This power shift to the authority figures allows them to establish higher expectations and standards for the student. This takes control of the game away from the child.

A child pretending to be unable to do what she actually can do is her own worst enemy.   No child should be allowed to play these games to outfox her elders. The youngster may think she has won but ends up as the loser by becoming an underachiever and eventually a poor student.

Once she is exposed as being conniving, this destructive habit will slowly be eradicated. The termination of her game playing will put her back on the right track. The future of the individual to live up to her potential as an achiever will be greatly enhanced.

Unfortunately too many parents and teachers allow too many children to continue this game. Setting low standards and expectations for these students is a tragedy that will follow them throughout their lives.

Dr. Maglio is an author and owner/director of Wider Horizons School, a college prep program. You can visit Dr. Maglio at


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