Non-negotiable needs for struggling learners
Monday, January 27, 2020
When teachers and other IEP team members work tirelessly to accelerate struggling learners’ (SLs) rates of progress, they often fall short of their goals. Often, progress regresses, stagnates, or crawls forward by only small inches rather than the 10 yards the IEP team had deemed realistic.
Why regression? Why stagnation? Why only a few inches? Some of these SLs try hard but unsuccessfully to succeed. Some don’t focus, some lack energy, some show little interest, some angrily resist instruction, and some disrupt instruction with ingenious antics.
Depending on the day, time, and situation, some show several of these characteristics. If their teachers and IEP support staff work hard, know the curriculum, and are highly competent in using, adapting, and supplementing basic and specialized programs, this makes no sense. What’s undermining success?
What’s undermining success?
The factors undermining success originate both outside and inside of school. Though schools can’t control outside of school factors they can often influence them.
To a greater or lesser degree, one or more of the following factors can undermine success, like gaping holes in a ship’s hull can sink it.
- Poor sleep
- Poor nutrition
- Insufficient physical activity
- Heavy demands on willpower
- Poor expectations of success
- Poor expectations of satisfaction
- A mechanical, impersonal environment
- Poor progress monitoring
- Functional disregard of the EARS principles (Easy, Attractive, Relevant, Socially Supported)
Just one of these affects some SLs’ dramatically, some moderately, and some mildly. In my 50-plus years in special education, I’ve met only a few students who seemed impervious to these factors.
Let’s briefly examine the first three factors. In a follow-up article, I’ll examine the rest.
For anyone, including children, the consequences of night-after-night of poor sleep is devastating.
"Healthy sleep is critical for children's psychological well-being…. Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and other types of emotional problems. Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene and physical activity…. ‘There are multiple emotional processes that seem to be disrupted by poor sleep… For example, our ability to self-monitor, pick up on others' nonverbal cues and accurately identify others' emotions diminishes when sleep is inadequate. Combine this with less impulse control, a hallmark feature of the teenage years, and sleep deprivation can create a 'perfect storm' for experiencing negative emotions and consequences’"
“Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently…. During the night, various sleep cycles play a role in ‘consolidating’ memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day.”
Though schools cannot control SLs’ sleep — e.g., when they get into bed, when they shut off their cell phones — they can influence it. Asking these questions can help SLs:
1. Has the school psychologist, learning consultant, or school nurse administered a sleep rating scale to assess the SL’s sleep? Has it been administered to the parent (or guardian) and when appropriate, the student?
2. Has the school conducted professional training sessions to inform all staff, including custodians and food handlers, about sleep and how to identify students who may have sleep problems?
3. Has the school conducted parent and community training sessions to sensitize the community about helping children (and adults) minimizing or eliminating sleep problems?
As with sleep, consistently poor nutrition can wreak havoc on children’s health, development, and academic achievement.
"We have found that there is increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.”
“According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. Unfortunately, foods with saturated fats are often the most affordable and widely available in schools. French fries, sugary desserts, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and other cafeteria staples are filling kids with food that actually lower their brain power before sending them back to class…. Malnutrition can result in long-term neural issues in the brain, which can impact a child’s emotional responses, reactions to stress, learning disabilities, and other medical complications.”
“Unhealthful dietary patterns that typically lead to obesity, diabetes, and other physical health problems can also contribute to poor mental health.”
And like sleep, schools cannot control nutrition, but often they can provide healthy meals and influence parents’ choices and actions. Asking these questions can help SLs:
1. Has the school’s dietician or nurse administered a rating scale to assess the child’s nutrition. Has it been administered to the parent (or guardian) and when appropriate, to the student?
2. Has the school conducted professional training sessions to inform all staff, including custodians and food handlers, about proper nutrition and how to identify students who may have difficulties getting or choosing proper nutrition?
3. Has the school conducted parent and community training sessions to sensitize the community about helping children (and adults) get and choose nutritional foods?
4. Has the school conducted parent and community training sessions about using government resources to secure proper nutrition?
Insufficient physical activity
The national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is quite clear about the need for frequent physical activity:
“Regular physical activity can help children and adolescents improve cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles, control weight, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce the risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, [and] obesity.”
In addition, “students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors (e.g., on-task behavior) …. Higher physical activity and physical fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory) among students.
But what about the critical area of mental health?
“Research has shown that physical activity releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good — boosting your self-esteem, helping you concentrate as well as sleep, look and feel better.”
“A few benefits of being physically active are less tension, stress and mental fatigue, a natural energy boost, improved sleep, a sense of achievement focus in life and motivation, less anger or frustration, a healthy appetite, better social life, having fun.”
Throughout the day, schools can directly influence the amount and type of physical activities for all students, including SLs. Teachers can integrate brief physical activities into their reading and math lessons. And, if needed, physical education teachers and physical therapists can help teachers identify ways of integrating enjoyable physical activities into instruction.
Asking these questions can help SLs:
1. For each SL, has the child’s IEP team identified the kinds of physical activities the student would enjoy?
2. Has the school conducted professional training sessions to help teachers integrate physical activity into their daily instruction?
3. Has the school conducted parent and community training sessions to sensitize the community about helping children get ample physical activity?
4. Has the school identified ways of encouraging reluctant students to participate in physical activities? (Cybercycling is but one example.)
Each of these factors — poor sleep, poor nutrition, insufficient physical activity—can undermine SLs’ success in school as well as their lifelong success. If we ignore these factors, children, parents, teachers, schools, and society will suffer. Nature has made the need for quality sleep, healthy nutrition, and ample physical activity non-negotiable.
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