This article was purposefully targeted for this time of the school year.

The all-important time is nearly past for teaching all students about the essential routines they need to function smoothly in your class. Sadly, there are still some students who don't seem to be able to meet your expectations about either the specific work they should be doing, or certain inappropriate behaviors you would like to see diminishing or even disappearing.

First, let's consider students who do not seem to be able to complete their assignments in the expected time period. Perhaps they are not quite ready for this particular grade level or subject area. Perhaps they are advanced learners who are impatient with being required to spend their learning time on topics they believe they have already mastered. Perhaps their reputation for being "difficult" has preceded them.

What should you do with students like this?

Let's talk first about students who may not be ready for your grade level or course content. There are various reasons for this, which will not be discussed here. Suffice it to say that whatever the reason, your interventions do not seem to be making any noticeable difference.

Please follow these steps exactly as they are described below:

  • Gather students who are struggling to get their work done into small groups of students with similar challenges. Even if you have a significant number of students like this, it is more effective when they work in smaller groups.
  • Tell them they will have five minutes less than the other students so there will be enough time for all students to process the outcomes.
  • Demonstrate how each student should actually create a fraction at the top of their paper, or in another way if their work is digital. For example, Claudia would create this fraction: 3/10. This means that she believes she can complete three sentences or math problems in the allotted 10 minutes.

All other students Claudia's group write a fraction with the same denominator, but make their own personal decision about how many tasks they can finish in the allotted time. There are no wrong choices here. All students are allowed to choose their own goal with no input from the adult.

The teacher has created five extra minutes for other students to complete their work while s/he asks each group member for their answers to these questions.

  • What was your goal? (Each group member states it)
  • Did you accomplish it? (Ditto)

Ask students who accomplished their goal, "How does it feel to be successful?" Help them to say something like, "It feels good to be successful."

Then ask students who were not successful, "What plan can you make for the next time we do this so the 'thing' that interfered with your success will not interfere again?"

Amazingly, students who constantly experience failure may perceive that is OK since at least it is a familiar event and is therefore not threatening. The more accustomed a person is to failure, the more anxious s/he may become at the prospect of experiencing success for at least two reasons.

First, if success has never been experienced, it represents a significant change in a person's life and it is well known that for most people, change is quite likely to produce anxiety. Second, people who are newly successful in certain situations may develop a fear of encountering scary prospects of having the people who now know what they can do decide to continuously "up the ante."

For example, many salespeople learn the difficult lesson that once they have shown how much they can sell and have met their "quota," their managers often increase their quota, making some salespeople wonder why they should work so hard when they have now discovered the quota games they will now be playing.

Almost all these scenarios may be eliminated when we teach students how to set realistic short-term goals and let them be the ones who decide when to set higher goals. These are all good reasons to be sensitive to students' fears of failure and success.

For decades, teachers have been setting goals for students who have not been successful in completing their work. "Jason, you might want to try the first six sentences, instead of the entire set. Let me know when you are done with that."

Funny thing, but that intervention often did more to convince the student s/he always needed the teacher's help to get things done.

A steady diet of similar arrangements, for some students, actually increased their helplessness. They may have even told themselves that there must be something wrong with them if their teachers believed they simply could never learn to do the work independently.

I now believe that when the decisions are placed in the minds of the students and they create a pattern of meeting their goals, they begin to redefine success as the ability to set and accomplish reasonable short-term goals.

Once they also realize that long-term success is simply a matter of accumulating short-term goals, they are definitely on their way to success in many learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom.