Summer programs for struggling learners: The parents’ role
Monday, April 09, 2018
Over the summer, many parents of struggling learners will strive relentlessly to teach their children the reading, writing and mathematics proficiencies they've yet to master. Some of these parents will succeed, but history shows that their efforts will usually backfire, igniting one or a combination of stress, anxiety, resentment, anger, despondence and depression.
If your efforts have backfired, you may dread a repeat performance. But you want your child to make progress, to have a successful school year, to feel confident. You need alternatives. What do you do?
Consider these four sets of ideas.
1. Consider a highly-personalized school option
If your child receives special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), study your state department of education's memos and publications on extended school year (ESY) eligibility and programs. Eligibility considerations are far broader than the erroneous belief that eligibility is limited to extreme "regression and recoupment" and severe physical or cognitive disabilities.
Also, learn about other summer programs. Some colleges, districts and camps offer five- to eight-week remedial and enrichment programs for reading, writing and math. Some of these are free, some charge incomes-based fees, and others are expensive. As with all programs, ask yourself, "What's the likelihood that this program will meet my child's academic, social, emotional, communication and physical needs?"
Note that I didn't limit these needs to academics. All these areas are important. What good is instruction that doesn't motivate him, that creates feelings of loneliness, that ignores the physical activity needed to keep him cognitively alert and properly focused?
If you can't find a high-quality ESY or summer program, consider tutoring. With the right program and tutor, several sessions a week is often the most effective way to teach academics to struggling learners. Unfortunately, it can be expensive, making it beyond the reach of many families.
To reduce costs, consider hiring a master's level specialist (e.g., master's degree in reading or mathematics instruction) to find or design and carefully supervise a program taught by a college student majoring in education or psychology. This has an excellent chance of working if the specialist and tutor are well qualified, work well together and systematically focus on your child's academic and emotional needs.
To maximize the effects of these programs, it's critical that the instruction diligently reject frustration-level materials and tasks while adhering to your child's independent and instructional levels. It’s also critical that instruction systematically focuses on the knowledge and skills your child needs to succeed in the fall.
2. Seek a program with the EAR qualities
Ideally, your child’s summer program should be Easy, Appealing and Relevant (EAR):
- Easy enough for her to succeed but challenging enough for her to avoid frustration while learning what's important for success in her upcoming classes.
For reading, this requires that when her teacher or tutor works directly with her — instructing her and quickly offering feedback and support — all reading tasks and materials need to mirror her general instructional level (70-89 percent reading comprehension and 95-98 percent rapid and correct word recognition when reading without practice). When she's working alone, all reading tasks and materials need to mirror her independent level (90 percent reading comprehension and 99 percent rapid and correct word recognition when reading without practice).
For mathematics, Salvia and Ysseldyke's guidelines make sense: "Depending on the student and the task, challenging material usually produces rates of correct student response of between 85 and 95 percent." More difficult tasks and materials would induce frustration.
Keep in mind that struggling learners who initially recoil at typical instructional-level tasks often benefit from slightly easier ones. With success, coupled with feedback that strengthens their focus, effort, use of targeted strategies and belief that mistakes are steps along the road to success, they soon tend to benefit from typical instructional level tasks.
- Appealing and stimulating enough to evoke your child's interest or willingness to try.
Any program that strikes him as boring or anxiety-provoking may instantly arouse urges to resist. In contrast, any program that directly integrates potentially satisfying social and physical activities into its daily academic routines may quickly motivate him to give it a try.
Usually, if struggling learners can make friends in a program, succeed in interactive group work — such as jigsaw groups in which each member of a team has a moderately challenging independent-level task — and voluntarily engage in physical activities, such as running, basketball, and physical fitness exercises, they have an excellent chance of gaining from it.
Once your child attends the program, it needs to emphasize activities that sustain his interest, attention, effort, thoughtfulness and success. To achieve this, his program needs to pepper activities with novel tasks and materials that are highly familiar but slightly different.
Slightly different independent-level novels with slightly different covers, slightly different group activities, and slightly different background music can fit the bill. It also needs to weave teacher-supported choices into each day's activities, so he can choose which of three stories to read, which of three tunes to listen to, or which of two activity schedules to vote for: reading before math or vice versa.
If your child’s confidence and belief in his academic abilities are scraping the floor, it’s critical that his tutors, teachers, aides and support staff systematically and routinely pepper his day with self-efficacy and mindset feedback. To strengthen his self-efficacy — which you might practically define as his belief that "I can succeed on this task if I make a reasonable effort, persist when necessary, and correctly use the right learning strategy" — requires that all tasks and materials reflect his proper instructional and independent levels, levels with which he feels comfortable.
If he succeeds on a task, his teacher might say, "Jammer, you focused on the story, made a good effort, didn’t give up, and carefully followed the R-A-P reading strategy. Because you did this, 11 of your 12 answers were right. Excellent job."
But if Jammer’s work was slipshod, his teacher might say, "Jammer, you needed to focus on the story, make a reasonable effort, and follow R-A-P’s three steps. If you did, I strongly believe you would have done very well. This afternoon, what will you do to successfully finish the story?"
If a struggling learner starts struggling on a task well within his current abilities, and starts saying he’s a failure, that he’ll never succeed, teachers might use this version of Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck's "yet" comment: "You haven’t yet mastered R.A.P. 100 percent, but with effort, persistence and the correct use of R-A-P, I strongly believe you’ll make excellent progress. Want me to show you the steps again?"
Such comments, aligned with interesting tasks and materials at the struggling learner’s correct instructional and independent levels, are deposits in his bank of confidence and self-image. They spur optimism and motivation, which spurs further effort and persistence. In other words, they create realistic, well-founded expectations that "I have the ability to learn and to succeed."
- Relevant enough to markedly help your child succeed in the upcoming school year and relevant enough to connect with how she thinks about her short- and long-term needs and wants.
The more you know about what your child wants to do and get and what she needs to thrive, the greater your ability to influence her thoughts and behavior, to have meaningful and satisfying discussions with her, and to add critical information and personalized recommendations to her individualized education program (IEP).
Once you have a strong handle on your child's wants and needs, from what you've studied as well as seen and heard inside and outside of school, you’ll be well prepared to make precise recommendations to her teachers and other IEP team members about what’s likely to help or hinder her. A short statement like this may prevent many problems: "After 10-minutes of sitting, it’s important to let Liz limber up or walk for two minutes. This will reduce her anxiety and help her focus, feel good, and stay on task."
You’ll also be better prepared to ask critical questions about the development of her IEP: "Given Liz's anxiety about reading, her fear of embarrassment and her decoding problems, what can we put into her IEP to prevent her anxiety from becoming a source of resistance to reading in September? And how can ongoing applied behavior help?"
To remember these points, just think of EAR, the acronym for Easy, Appealing and Relevant. One way to learn about what's easy, appealing and relevant to your child is to keep listening to her, her friends, her teachers and anyone else who knows her. Over time, careful listening (as well as observing) to understand what’s said should yield a wealth of relevant information.
3. Give your child a break
When your search has ended, you may have found a tutor or program that incorporates some of EAR's characteristics. But it's not perfect. Should you reject it?
Not if it can meaningfully help your child, help him do better in school and help him feel better about himself. You have as much chance of finding the perfect tutor or program as you have of living in a perfect city, with perfect weather and perfect people. Everything and everyone has flaws. Ever look through a high-powered electronic microscope?
So, what do you do?
Here's a paradoxical suggestion, one with tremendous value, but one you might scoff at: give your child a vacation. Avoid formal academic instruction. Let him play, socialize and go to the movies. Simply put, many struggling learners feel extraordinary stressed in school. Their heavy struggle has robbed them of optimism, of motivation, of confidence. They want to escape.
Vacations, with leisure time away from the pressures of someone else's daily and often "impossible" demands to succeed, can energize us, improve our perspectives and refresh our optimism and moods. Often, they do so for children as well, with added benefits like lessening their stress and strengthening their social abilities.
As Dr. Gary Brannigan and I stressed in our book on reading disabilities, you can help your child become a successful reader without becoming his formal instructor, without badgering him, without inciting resistance:
"Parents can do many simple things at home and in the community to help their children develop the background, abilities, and motivation needed to succeed in reading. Activities include reading books to children, listening intently when they speak, playing rhyming and sound games, visiting and talking about different places, labeling new experiences with relevant vocabulary, and helping them create elaborate sentences."
4. Keep everything in perspective
Remember that remediating a child's ongoing struggles with learning takes considerable time, patience, planning, professional knowledge and creativity that springs from extensive study and experience. Few parents have this combination.
And even if they do, they might be the wrong person to remediate the problems.
Take me and my family. If any of my grandchildren needed reading help, I'd struggle unsuccessfully to teach them. Why? I'd be too emotionally involved. So would they: "He's grandpa. I see him all the time. He's not Dr. Margolis, the reading and special education expert. That man's a stranger. I want grandpa to be grandpa."
So, ask yourself, would your relationship enable or impede remediation? What's your most effective role? Mine would be supporter.
Your decisions may be difficult. If so, I suggest you give deep thought to the suggestions in this article and speak to your child's teachers and other IEP team members as well as informed people in your community. And if you're still unsure about what to do and the first two sets of suggestions won't work for you, reread the third set. Then go paradoxical. Let your child enjoy his vacation.
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