How to help struggling learners who are not completing their work
| October 16, 2017
By this time of the school year, some learners may be struggling to complete their work in certain subject areas (including some gifted or advanced learners). Although there may be evidence that this problem has been present in previous school years, this year's teacher will suffer frustration with these events.
Their teachers might conclude that such students are lazy or not trying hard enough. If you have had a conference with their parents, you may have learned that this is a pattern that has been observed in other grades as well.
There are at least two interventions that are somewhat typical.
One is informing these students that there will be unpleasant consequences if they continue in this manner. The problem with that approach, however, is that it often compounds the situation, rather than providing a solution.
Dr. Raymond Wlodkowski, a recognized expert in motivation for both students and adults, suggests that it is much better to avoid a punitive approach in this situation. When educators make threats, such as failing grades, calling parents or detention, one of the most predicable student reactions is resentment.
The student may feel frightened, angry, not smart and/or totally misunderstood. These feelings lead to the student mistrusting the teacher and grumbling about the teacher's lack of fairness, or even that the teacher does not like the student. These thoughts in turn lead to a desire to "get back" at the teacher and may be expressed openly or more subtly as vindictiveness.
Of course, this leads the teacher to feeling frustrated and quite certain that even more sanctions are needed. As you can imagine, things escalate quickly into what may be called "the relentless cycle of threat."
A second option is to consider the possibility that these students who are not doing the work perceive that they simply are not able to do it.
Perhaps they did not understand the teaching they experienced in school that day. Perhaps there is such turmoil at their homes, or lack of basic resources, that they are hungry or can't find a place to work, nor can they expect much help from other family members who may be exhausted in the evenings from too much work during the day.
The simplest solution is to reteach the lesson in a manner that is favored by most students who struggle with academics. Not because they are less intelligent than successful learners, but because the typical teaching style favors kids who can learn by listening and are comfortable with the logical, analytic and/or sequential thinking also required by a huge number of typical school tasks.
The preferred learning modality preferences of many of these unsuccessful students are visual, tactile and/or kinesthetic. They find sitting still agonizing and desire more movement at many points during the school day.
Most benefit from the highly effective technology that makes learning more "hands-on" for them. As you find that this approach is successful, you might begin to present the learning content for these students in more visual, tactile and/or kinesthetic ways the first time it is expected to be learned.
The final strategy that leads to amazing success for these kids is teaching them how to set realistic, short-term goals often during the school day, and learn how to congratulate themselves on their success. The idea of "success" is changed from arbitrarily finishing a certain number of problems or answering a certain number of questions to mean "learning how to set and reach realistic short-term goals."
This is true in all aspects of life. For example, Mike Brookes, a successful businessman, teaches his colleagues, "Short-term goals tend to get you into action right away, are easier to visualize, and because of their short-term nature they encourage you to set realistic, easy-to-accomplish goals."
With young people, the following "tricks" help lead to higher motivation and ultimately, better achievement.
1. You provide the time frame and let the student set the goal. I really mean that. When we set a smaller goal for a struggling student, the message they perceive may be,” Oh, no, this teacher really does not think I can do this work.
2. At the end of the designated time, have the following dialogue with each student who participated:
- Students who were successful: What was your goal? Did you accomplish it? Who is responsible for your success? Congratulate yourself.
- Students who did not reach their goal: What was your goal? Did you accomplish it? Who or what is responsible for this fact? What will you do differently the next time you set your own goal in this subject area?
It is essential to get the students to take responsibility — not the blame — for the outcome. We want them to say, "I am responsible for learning to choose a realistic goal."
3. Now just let today go! No makeup, no extra time in class, no negative statements.
4. Repeat the process tomorrow.
5. However, be careful not to take over the goal-setting amount. When we raise it, some kids think, "I knew she was going to do that! Why can't I keep on setting my own goals?" When we lower it, they may lose courage.
Eventually, the students will slowly up the ante for their own goals and learn to take pride in being able to set and accomplish realistic short-term goals.
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