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What can teachers do to help enable learners who struggle in class regularly?
Sometimes it can feel like an uphill battle for both the student and the teacher. After all, many of these kids are considered highly intelligent and verbally competent. So it hurts teachers when they witness them have panic attacks or lapse into apathy when they have trouble learning in class.
However, the truth is that this is a reality in practically every classroom and for a number different reasons. It's also not an insurmountable problem.
How can we help them? What are strategies we can apply to enable learners who grapple with the daily pressures of classroom learning? Moreover, how do we do it in a way that makes them want to keep learning and growing even beyond school?
5 Ways to Empower Struggling Learners
- Seek first to understand
- Get to know them on a personal level
- Find out how they learn best
- Teach the Growth Mindset
- Expect the best from them (and give it)
1. Seek first to understand
Teachers sometimes assume they know what’s going on. They lack understanding of the cause of a particular child's difficulties and are ready to put adult-imposed sanctions upon them.
Worse, they can make the dangerous assumption of labeling them as “a bad kid” or “hopeless” or “impossible to teach.”
In such cases we need to examine what lies beneath the surface of their turmoil. Why do they have problems understanding or coping? It’s because of lagging skills. A child can sometimes simply lack the skills to adapt to challenging situations.
The truth is that struggling students are not always struggling, so don’t ignore them when they're calm.
We must help such children identify the unsolved problem and then help them acquire the necessary skills. Dr. Ross Greene says it best:
“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."
Don't overreact when a student struggles or has anxiety. We begin to enable learners like this by acting in a calm manner when they display such behaviour. The calmer and more patient you are, the more likely they will be to settle down and focus on the problem with you.
2. Get to know them on a personal level
The truth is that struggling students are not always struggling, so don’t ignore them when they're calm. This is when you can engage them, talk to them, and get them involved in an activity. The worst time to try to teach them is in the middle of a panic episode or when they've shut down completely.
Why impose an impromptu, timed multiplication quiz upon a struggling student? We already know they labour with this because they can't write or think fast enough. They're more likely to get discouraged and give up.
Instead, make your assessments formative and frequent before the final exam. Talk them through solutions before it becomes too late, and offer good feedback along the way.
3. Find out how they learn best
We know a parent who does home school lessons with their child in addition to regular schooling for half days. Recently, he planned out a lesson complete with visuals and a behavioural objective in hand.
He tried to lead his son in the lesson, but the child got up and began manipulating the projector and grabbing the mouse. Everything was seemingly designed to derail his dad's carefully planned lesson.
Our friend 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?”
The boy couldn’t tell him, so he 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?”
We need to examine what lies beneath the surface of a student's turmoil. Why do they have problems understanding or coping?
His son did just that, and his dad then said to him, “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 proceeded to allow his son to do what he needed to do. All the while, he was asking him to explain how his actions got them closer to the goal. In the end, the boy crafted his own path to the goal and took responsibility for his own learning.
This happened in a one-on-one situation where the teacher could allow the child to take control of the classroom, with adult as a guide. How can we bring this thinking process to larger class settings and enable learners to solve problems that matter?
4. Teach the Growth Mindset
Intelligence is not fixed; it can be enhanced with diligence and an understanding of what mindset you are operating under.
The perfect tool for teaching the growth mindset is Future-Focused Learning's 5-Day Growth Mindset Guide. It's for sharing a week's worth of meaningful lessons and conversations about mindsets with your learners, and understanding how intention affects progress and productivity, among many other growth mindset principles.
Throughout the day, ask those struggling students to be aware of which mindset they have in situations that are challenging and daunting. When they can think clearly, they realize that they can work toward a solution. They just have to be creative and not get stuck.
Don’t tell them they're smart, either—that’s a label. When they have difficulty, they'll wonder why they're not being smart. Instead, praise them for using “number skills” or “perseverance skills.”
Note they are exercising their brains by doing something different. Praise them for working hard to find a solution in the face of adversity. Instill in them the idea that they can make their intelligence grow simply by doing.
Don't overreact when a student struggles or has anxiety. We enable learners like this by acting in a calm manner when they display such behaviour.
5. Expect the best from them (and give it)
There is a fine line between setting your expectations high and knowing what a child’s “ceiling” is. Unrealistic expectations with no guidance is like throwing them into the woods and expecting them to use skills they don't have to survive.
Be supportive but challenging at the same time. In other words, keep your expectations high but realistic.
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.
Enable Learners Now and Forever
Understand that your kids will have great days and bad days. When it comes to enabling learners who seem beset by constant challenge, you can be their guide.
Empower them to recognize how they learn and then let them learn that way. 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, but the results speak for themselves as that learner begins moving forward.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 5, 2018, updated October 12, 2021