How do we help enable struggling students? I’d like to use my own experiences as a springboard to help answer this. My situation may not be similar to yours, but you may take what’s relevant to you from the headings below.
My son struggles. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. Though I hate to put labels and preconceived notions upon him, it is a very real issue with the way his brain works. This should inform teachers and caregivers on root causes of his difficulties.
But maybe he is not so different than other struggling students. When people look at my child, he is often considered highly intelligent and verbally competent. So it baffles people—especially teachers—that he has panic attacks, problems with social boundaries, and is awkward physically.
They wonder why he is rude, and his brothers are not (same parents, same parenting techniques, mind you). They question why he lacks filters and will say what’s at the top of his head with a seeming lack of regard for another person’s feelings. They ask why, when bullied, he’ll scream because he’s not allowed to hit back.
He will get in trouble for causing a disruption because the other children are more adept at hiding their instigating behaviours. He will also be accused of playing the victim and using his “condition” as an excuse.
In a nutshell, he struggles.
Strategies for Helping Struggling Students
How can we help him? How can we help students like him? What are strategies we can apply in most cases where we face struggling students? And here’s the kicker: how do we do it without putting other children’s education in jeopardy?
Seek first to understand
This by far has been the biggest issue in my child’s school. Teachers assume they know what’s going on. They lack understanding of the cause of his difficulties and are ready to put together adult-imposed sanctions upon him.
I’m not talking about the Aspy thing. We can’t and shouldn’t resort to,“he has Asperger’s, let him be.” Caregivers often fall short of considering the root cause of his challenges. They make the dangerous assumption of labeling him as “a bad kid” or is “hopeless” and “cannot be taught.”
Instead let’s talk about lagging skills and unsolved problems. “Why doesn’t he understand? Why does he disrupt the class? It’s because of lagging skills. The child lacks the skills to adapt to challenging situations. So what should we do? We help the child identify the unsolved problem and help her acquire the necessary skills.
“If you want to solve a problem with a child, you’re going to need a problem-solving partner: the child. If the child’s concerns aren’t identified and addressed, the problem will remain unsolved.”—Dr. Ross Greene
What I wish his teachers can do for him is not to overreact when he has panic attacks. In fact, many of his panic attacks are when teachers overreact to his seemingly illogical, irrational behavior or comments. Success can be accomplished when teachers can act in a calm safe manner when he displays inappropriate behaviour or words.
Get to know them on a personal level
He’s not always having difficulty. Don’t ignore him when he’s calm. This is when you can engage him, talk to him, get him involved in an activity. The worst time to try to “teach” him is in the middle of a panic episode. This goes for academics as well. Pop quizzes do not “teach.”
Why would you impose upon a struggling student an impromptu, timed multiplication quiz, when you know 1) he already struggles with this because he cannot write or think fast enough, and 2) he will get discouraged and give up?
Instead, make your assessments formative and frequent before the final exam so that he knows where he is at all times. Talk him through solutions before it becomes too late. Offer good feedback along the way. Do not impose a grade on these formative assessments.
Find out how they learn best
I do home school lessons with my child, in addition to regular schooling for half a day. Recently, I planned out a lesson, complete with audio visuals, and my behavioral objective in hand. I tried to lead him in the lesson. He had other plans; getting up and manipulating the projector, grabbing the mouse, making comments that seemed rude. Everything was seemingly designed to derail my lesson.
I finally said, “Can we pause for a minute? I think we’re on different pages here. Can you tell me what the purpose of today’s lesson is?” He couldn’t tell me.
“I see. Well, here it is.” I stated the objective clearly. “Do you understand what that means? Can you repeat it? Or put it in your own words so I know you understand?”
He did. I said, “Well, how can I help you get there? Is the screen too distracting? Are the images on the wall confusing? What would you do to achieve the goal I set out for us today?”
He told me. He was thoughtful and honest. I listened. “Show me,” I said. And he did. I proceeded to allow him to do what he needed to do. All the while, I was asking him to explain how his actions got us closer to the goal. In the end, he crafted his own path to the goal, and I was satisfied.
He learned something that day. So did I.
This happened in a one-on-one situation, where I could allow him to take control of the classroom, with me as a guide. Can creative ways be employed to talk about the thinking process in larger class settings to allow for different approaches to solving problems?
Teach the Growth Mindset
Intelligence is not fixed. It can be enhanced with diligence and determination, and understanding what mindset you are operating under. I listen daily to a segment of the audiobook Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, together with my son. He is attentive and asks a lot of questions. We talk about it and have discussions about it. He wants to write to Dr. Dweck with questions of his own.
How do we use this? Throughout the day, I ask him to be aware of which mindset he’s using during particular situations where he needs to persevere to get a problem solved. When he can think clearly, he realizes that he can work toward a solution. He just has to be creative and not get stuck.
Don’t tell him he’s smart—that’s a label. When he has difficulty, he will wonder why he’s not being smart. Instead, praise him for using his “number skills,” his “perseverance skills,” and for his “brain growing” by doing something different. Praise him for working hard to find a solution. Instil in him the idea that he can make his intelligence grow simply by doing.
Expect the best from them
There is a fine line between setting my expectations high and knowing what my child’s “ceiling” is. Unrealistic expectation with no help and real guidance to get there is like throwing him into the fire, expecting him to use skills he doesn’t have to survive. Instead, keep your expectations high but realistic. Be supportive, but challenging at the same time.
Without a clear pathway to success, struggling students have difficulty seeing the big picture and how to navigate toward a solution. Clear step-by-step instructions, even picture instructions and checklists, can help struggling children get simple tasks done.
What to Take Away
Struggling students struggles on their own. It is their struggle. You can be their guide along the way. Do not give them the answers. Empower them to recognize how they learns and then let them learn that way.
Do not abdicate your responsibilities and your expectations. Define learning objectives collaboratively with the child, being specific and clear. It takes extra time, effort, and energy to help struggling students. You may not know the fruits of your labor readily.
My child has great days. He has good days. He continues to struggle on some. What he tells me he is thankful for is that his teachers don’t give up on him. What could make any teacher prouder than to hear that?