Many struggling learners “hate” homework and in-class assignments that they need to complete by themselves. Why? Academics confuses, frustrates, and overwhelms them. Their struggles humiliate them.

Expectations of failure send shutters down their spines. Ask yourself: Day after day, would you want your success to depend on confusing and frustrating work that overwhelms you, that you fail at, that leaves you feeling incompetent and worthless? I doubt it.

Even in this era of remote instruction, where direct, in-person instruction is often rare, where struggling learners must often work alone, where it’s often difficult for them to get the help they need, teachers and support staff can improve this situation. In other words, they can help struggling learners “beat the odds.”

Following are three foundational recommendations that can help struggling learners (and most learners) succeed in normal times and times like these when it’s difficult for teachers and support staff to provide as much help as they want to. Each recommendation emphasizes prevention. Each is an extrapolation from the academic literature.

  1. Show your struggling learners that you care about them.
  2. Adhere to their proper independent, instructional, and frustration levels.
  3. Don’t rely on willpower, encourage motivation.

None of these recommendations are magical. None will deliver 100% success. But they can bolster struggling learners’ academic abilities, feelings of satisfaction, and emotional outlook. They can help to reduce, even eliminate, struggling learners stress and anxiety. Conversely, ignoring them may well create and exacerbate problems. Ignoring them may well engender despair and conflict.

Show Your Students That You Care about Them

Conceptually, it’s easy to show your students that you care about them. For Mrs. Sitzman, my seventh-grade social studies teacher in a crowded three-story Brooklyn public school, it looked easy. She carefully listened to students, worked to understand what they meant and provided encouraging, realistic counsel. Rarely did she interrupt them.

If they needed time to calm down, she gave them time. If they needed privacy, they got it. Though she radiated genuine care, her academic standards were high. This didn’t mean that everyone had to achieve the same standard. It meant that everyone would have ample opportunity to achieve what they could.

I needed her help. Though I had severe stuttering and moderate language problems that confused and unnerved many teachers, she listened patiently. She listened to understand me, to identify my fears, my interests, and my willingness to work.

She paired me with peers who befriended me, who helped me feel part of a group. She treated me with respect, helped me when needed, and nurtured my confidence. In other words, she showed that she cared about me. And she got the best out of me. Some 65 years later — almost three quarters of a century — her caring continues to influence me.

Though what she did looked easier than it was, it’s something all teachers and support staff can aspire to, and to a degree, succeed.

To paraphrase what many students have lamented, “Why should I care if the teacher doesn’t?” Though emotionally mature adults can answer this question easily — "You’re hurting yourself. Don’t rob yourself of a good education.” — many struggling learners won’t buy their answers. They need to see and feel the caring. They want to know that their teacher’s in their corner.

Adhere to Students’ Proper Independent, Instructional, and Frustration Levels

The names of the levels are key. For struggling learners (and most students) it’s critically important that lessons and independently-completed assignments match their current abilities. A regimen of assignments and materials at the wrong levels sets the stage for failure, resistance, and despondence. The right levels set the stage for success, motivation, and confidence.

Independent Level: Whenever struggling learners are working by themselves, on homework or class assignments, their materials and assignments should match their independent level, the level at which they have the knowledge, skill, confidence, determination, and self-control to succeed.

Statistically, for reading, struggling learners should have the competence to quickly, correctly, and independently identify 99% of words in context, such as paragraphs, and readily understand 90% of the reading materials. All homework should be at this level, which for most students is a comfortable level. Homework at this level has a far greater chance of getting finished and accomplishing its goals than homework at students’ instructional or frustration level.

Instructional Level: Here, struggling learners work directly with teachers. Ideally, at this level teachers demonstrate, explain, encourage, ask questions, answer questions, monitor guided practice, provide feedback, and radiate merited optimism.

By the end of the lesson(s), if all goes well, struggling learners should have learned so much that they morphed their instructional level materials into independent level materials. The materials haven’t changed; the struggling learners have.

Statistically, the reading instructional level is generally defined as the competence to accurately, quickly, and routinely identify 95 to 98% of words in context and readily understand 70% to 89% of the material. For some struggling learners, these statistics are too demanding. Initially, they need less of a challenge. Ninety-five percent frustrates them. For them, 97 to 98% is more comfortable and effective.

These statistics are pre-instruction statistics. In other words, struggling learners should achieve these standards before teachers initiate their lessons.

Frustration Level: Frustration level assignments and materials are more difficult than instructional level ones. The word frustration says it all. It’s a red light. It’s a danger sign. It’s a swampy, overflowing bog in a hurricane. It’s the level to avoid. Let me repeat that word: Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Statistically, frustration level refers to quickly and accurately recognizing 90% of words in context and readily understanding 50% of the material.

Surely a diet of reading that produces 90% word recognition accuracy and 50% comprehension won’t frustrate struggling learners. Don’t bet on it. Adults flee such materials. They’re too frustrating. And struggling learners often suffer and feel humiliated when trying to read such materials.

If teachers routinely assign independently-completed assignments or homework at a struggling learner’s frustration level — the level that’s too hard, the level to avoid, avoid, avoid — despondency may well emerge, motivation may plummet, resistance may arise.

Often, frustration level problems arise if teachers treat instructional level materials and assignments as independent level ones. Without direct, self-evident, and immediate teacher-supported instruction, instruction in which teachers directly and tangibly work with struggling learners, instructional level materials and assignments morph into frustration level, the level to avoid. If routinely done, struggling learners’ motivation may well plunge as their anxiety soars.

Whatever the situation — homework, in person instruction, or remote instruction — adhering to these levels, which includes shunning frustration level materials and assignments, will likely strengthen struggling learners’ confidence, optimism, and motivation. In essence, the independent and instructional levels ask struggling learners to “stretch your mind and effort a little. But don’t worry, you’ll not be asked to stretch so far that you’re confused, feel inadequate, and tear an emotional ligament.”

Don’t Rely on Willpower, Encourage Motivation

Everyone wants to do what they like. But sometimes, everyone needs to do what they dislike. If there’s a comfortable balance between the two, and the disliked task isn’t horrendous, things will probably turn out well.

Unfortunately, struggling learners often face a skewed, distressing balance. They dislike, even loathe, too much of the instruction and work they get.

Too often they’re asked to succeed on work they find uninteresting, confusing, frustrating, and “impossible.” They may take an initial stab at it, then give up, look around, squirm in their seats, look tired, and start yawning. Does this look disrespectful? Yes. Is it always disrespectful? No. If not, what’s causing this? Who’s the culprit? Often, it’s the distressing balance of disliked activities. It’s the loss of….

It’s the loss of willpower.

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as “the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.” Temptation however, plus the stacking of several overly demanding and disliked activities tends to deplete willpower. It melts willpower like an ice cream cone in scalding 99-degree sunlight.

In essence, willpower stacking — working on one difficult, confusing, and frustrating activity after another, after another, after another, after another — tends to drain struggling learners’ energy and attention. As Professor Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney wrote in “Willpower,” their New York Times bestseller, “Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued through overuse.”

This problem has two solutions. Solution one: Assign struggling learners’ fewer activities they’re likely to dislike and find frustrating. Solution two: Give them lots of activities that interest them, that they believe they can succeed on, and with moderate effort, they can. Such activities minimize and often eliminate the need for willpower.

As you might have inferred, solution two is best. Motivation doesn't require tons of willpower. If you start hearing Bob Marley’s music in a local restaurant, and he’s one of your favorite singers, you’re not thinking, “Help! How can I escape?” Instead, you might think, “This is great. If this is the music they play, I’m coming back.” No need for willpower.

Moreover, stressing interesting and motivating topics and activities unlocks one of education’s primary goals: To help all students, which includes struggling learners, to develop and maintain an enduring passion for learning. The greater their passion, the more they’re going to engage in the topics and activities that interest them, whether in school or by themselves. This alone will help them overcome their academic difficulties.

Likely Outcomes

Without a doubt, most teachers and support staff (as well as parents and grandparents) want to help children succeed, whether they’re academically adept or struggling. The recommendations above can help. Sometimes they’ll fully eliminate stress and anxiety, sometimes they’ll have a small impact. Sometimes they’ll generate substantial academic gains, sometimes moderate one’s. But whenever they’re correctly and routinely used, they’ll help.

By caring, structuring lesson for success, and giving all learners what they can comfortably handle and learn from, teachers and support staff will give life and power to the insightful and enduring words of Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”