For struggling learners (SLs) to have a good chance of mastering the subjects and activities with which they struggle, it’s critical that schools, teachers, and parents create and sustain conditions for success.

Below are three of the many conditions that provide a foundation for successful learning. Too often, however, they’re ignored. Not surprisingly, these create powerful barriers to success.

1. Sleep

Night-after-night of fewer than eight or so hours of rehabilitative sleep virtually guarantees greater academic and behavioral problems for SLs. As Professor Matthew Walker of Stanford University made alarmingly clear:

“If you make a composite of these symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviorally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, these symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.”

Professor Walker isn’t alone in his conclusions. The literature is replete with negative, often life-changing consequences. For example, the West London Mental Health Service of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service published a booklet of serious problems caused or magnified by sleep deprivation:

  • Emotional well-being, e.g., causing low mood, irritability
  • Noncompliance and difficult behaviors during the day, such as aggression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Decline in motivation and concentration leading to mistakes and decreased capacity to learn.

The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School concluded that:

“Research suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task (italics added).

Lack of adequate sleep affects mood, motivation, judgment, and our perception of events.

The quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.”

Fortunately, schools, teachers, and parents can do a great deal to prevent or remedy sleep problems. For example, schools can hold frequent workshops and counseling sessions for students and parents; special education evaluations can assess sleep difficulties; school nurses can provide literature and guidance; and parents can help their children follow a “sleep hygiene” routine. (For detailed information on sleep hygiene, see my MultiBriefs article from August 2018.)

2. Nutrition

Mention the word “nutrition” and many people painfully mutter: “Oh great. The nutrition police. Here comes another insensitive lecture on nutritional morality.” But this is not a lecture. It’s just an authoritative quote and personal experiences from my experience working with SLs.

Writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, J. McCary concluded:

“Nutrition has a critical influence on cognitive development and academic performance in children and adolescents, as undernourished children are more likely to have low energy and difficulty concentrating…. Therefore, lack of proper nutrition can be considered a barrier to optimal learning…. Children with disabilities … often have more physical health-related problems that impact their education and nutrition status.”

Decades ago, when I taught special education in one of the poorest and neglected parts of Newark, New Jersey, and then taught at a New York school for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems, it became obvious that poor nutrition for SLs, regardless of their calorie intake, led to lower energy, motivation, and focus. This made it unsustainable to master all that they needed to master.

As I advanced my education and saw countless SLs in my five decades of teaching, observing, and consulting, I learned that eating too many fat-, salt-, and sugar-laden foods; and eating too few grains, legumes, fruits, and green leafy vegetables may well rob SLs of the energy, motivation, focus, and sustainability they need to succeed.

Though often much easier said than done, it’s important to give all children a healthy breakfast of foods they enjoy, and model mindful eating rather than a rushed, voracious, thoughtless race to the finish line.

Though this takes time, planning, and habit building, it’s worth it. In many cases, it takes planned and knowledgeable use of food stamps and discussions about menus with school administrators.

Difficult, frustrating, and time consuming? Often, yes. But over time, even a 30% dietary improvement may prove important. This might have helped one of my students in Newark. Had he less sugar at each meal, his browned rotting teeth might not have caused the continuous, agonizing pain that plagued him.

3. Willpower

When a situation fails to meet a SL’s needs, and when it’s frustrating him beyond his tolerance, his motivation and effort will start disintegrating. Often, his willpower will quickly vanish.

That is, his ability and effort to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing will vanish, as will his ability and effort to take steps that advance rather than undermine any ambitious academic goals he might have. Self-defeating instant gratification, such as dawdling, fidgeting, and making loud noises might prevail.

And why not if he’s one of the countless SLs with long histories of struggling to achieve what most of his peers have surpassed?

Many rationally thinking adults might think that this frustrating situation, where the SL’s needs have fallen by the wayside, should trigger his willpower. But paradoxically, like an overly exhausted muscle that loses its strength, willpower starts to quickly vanish.

Schools, teachers, and parents can prevent this. They can lessen or eliminate the need for willpower.

So, to lessen or eliminate the need for willpower, what should schools support and what should teachers and parents do? In addition to supporting healthy sleep and nutrition, both of which affect cognition, alertness, behavior, moods, energy, focus, learning, and willpower, they can continuously structure situations that build interest, self-efficacy (somewhat akin to confidence), positive relationships, and ambitious but realistic challenges. These are feasible.

Scheduling is one example. Eliminating willpower-sapping schedules, such as having three successive periods of highly-taxing (and perhaps frustrating) academics, should help tremendously, as willpower — a form of focused energy and cognitive muscle — will disintegrate by the middle of the third period for almost anyone, including me and the superheroes.

Thus, schedules should be designed to maximize the reality of two words: motivation and willpower.

Instruction is another example. Instruction that continuously adheres to validated instructional- and independent-level tasks and materials is critical for helping SLs achieve and maintain motivation. This will eliminate frustration and will usually eliminate the need for protracted willpower.

It also illustrates one of the key principles for ensuring that thoughtless impulsivity doesn’t sabotage long-term goals. The principle? Structure the physical and social environment for success, success that the SL values, success that obviates the need for willpower.

When teachers work directly with SLs, using interesting tasks and materials at their valid instructional levels; showing them what to do; explaining how to do it; answering their questions and concerns; providing them with practice; and offering encouraging but accurate guidance, feedback, and support, they’re taking a major step toward eliminating the need for willpower. And when SLs feel comfortable and motivated about the tasks, materials, and challenges, and they accurately believe that with moderate rather than herculean efforts they have the knowledge and ability to succeed, substantial willpower is rarely necessary.

But beware: The more these elements are missing, the more likely optimism and motivation to succeed will crumble. In turn, SLs will depend more on their naturally limited, often vanishing willpower.

Here's the contradiction. To succeed in these situations, SLs need to engage willpower, but many will not. And why not, if their motivation has fallen to infinitesimal levels?

In this situation, overt or passive resistance, two categories of escape, often dominate SLs’ thoughts and actions. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University makes clear:

“Willpower [is] the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to…. If there’s no really important ‘want’ driving it, the brain’s system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.”

In addition to Dr. McGonigal’s quote, keep in mind this quote from Dr. Frank Martela’s practical and well-written Kindle book. It has many implications for SLs:

“You use your willpower every time you fight against an urge, try to filter some distractions out of your mind, make a choice between alternatives, or try to concentrate on something. And when you use your willpower, you have less of it available for the next task. Willpower is like a muscle; it gets exhausted through use, but recovers through rest.”

The Front Burner

Actively working to ensure the effectiveness of sleep, nutrition, and willpower can prevent and solve many but not all problems. Parents and professionals need to keep them in mind. In other words, on the front burner.

Other critical conditions also need to be on the front burner. They include interest, positive relationships, self-efficacy, growth mindsets, personal goals, fun and satisfaction, and emotional comfort.

Many of these conditions are discussed in the three books listed below and in my free articles on MultiBriefs. Together, parents, teachers, and schools can do a great deal to educate, support, and reinforce one another in ways that magnify their effectiveness. This will substantially benefit SLs.

Three Helpful Books

Frank Martela Ph.D., Willpower:The Owner's Manual: 12 Tools for Doing the Right Thing. Publishing for Bios Biotos. Kindle Edition.

Matthew Walker (2018). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. New York: Scribner.

West London Mental Health. Sleep difficulties in Children and Young Children with Learning Disabilities.