The Matthew Effect


‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

—Matthew 25:29, New Revised Standard Version.

This profound statement touches us all in different ways. For the child, it has a special and very important meaning and urgency. Children grow out of the Earth, out of their environment. Like a sprout in a field grows full and tall with the right mix of sunshine, rain, and nutrients, a child can only achieve full potential when the necessary elements are provided in appropriate amounts. If an element is lacking in the environment, the ongoing deficiency can lead to problems or shortfalls in growth and development. These can worsen with time, like a vicious cycle.

In the Kindergarten classroom, the children behave in very similar fashion academically, relative to later on in the higher grades. Also, the demands of instruction in K are varied and look little like what they will in, say, Grade 6, when the child learns primarily through reading or other visual input. In the earlier years, learning difficulties are often hidden because of easier classroom demands. Learning to read IS the focus, and the child may be able to easily cope with teacher demands. If the same child has a reading impediment, it might not be a problem until the demands of classroom instruction exceed what the child is capable of doing comfortably; in other words, learning to read may well be easier for the child than reading to learn.

For a simple example, let’s say a child, 6 year-old Sally, is moderately farsighted. She can see objects near and far, but she has to work to see the near objects clearly. In the Kindergarten classroom, the visual demands are easy (large print, big pictures) and there is very little reliance on desk work. Later on, in Grade 1, Sally has to sit in a row and is asked to copy words from the board. Because she has to work hard to see up close, she has much trouble reading and copying from the board. She also squints and this leaves her with headaches after school. Sally’s teacher noticed the squinting and mom noticed the headaches. A trip to the optometrist, and with new glasses, Sally’s enjoyment and performance in school will both improve.

In Sally’s case, her farsightedness was caught early and fixed, so the overall impact to Sally’s life will be minimal. In many other cases, children will have trouble they simply cannot identify, let alone remedy. Over time, when the demands of the classroom (and reading) increase, it becomes harder and harder to keep up. Poor performance and understanding lead to deficits in subsequent classes (that is, the next level of Mathematics, or Social Studies, or English, etc.), and the child falls further and further behind, becoming ever more discouraged – and disinterested.

Learning difficulties are varied and numerous. In the world of vision alone, there are many possible learning impediments. When left unchecked, learning trouble grows and is magnified over the years. The child becomes more and more frustrated with schooling as demands grow further out of reach. This ‘Matthew Effect’ gives rise to many ‘what if’ scenarios, like what if Sally’s teacher and mother had never noticed her trouble. What impact would this have had on Sally’s enjoyment of and success in school, and her choices after graduation?

Yearly comprehensive vision examinations are an easy and effective means of ensuring at least some bases are covered when it comes to learning difficulties. In many cases, however, learning impediments go undetected, be they visually-based or otherwise, and with time, the effects can be devastating.