Remote teaching alone cannot easily and fully create and sustain many of the critical elements needed to meaningfully advance struggling learners’ academic, social, and emotional progress.

These elements include listening and acting with empathy; helping parents successfully address COVID-19’s anxiety producing obstacles and dangers; understanding how to help struggling learners achieve their IEP or section 504 goals; and helping them take well-earned credit for their efforts and accomplishments.

To create, reinforce, and sustain these critical elements, struggling learners need teachers and support staff who express genuine empathy and concern, work with and support parents, and help struggling learners believe they have a good chance of succeeding if they make a reasonable effort to follow their teachers suggestions and instructions.

In line with this, we will discuss three ways to create or strengthen these critical elements.

  • Empathy and congruent actions
  • Support for parents
  • Belief enhancing strategies

Will our suggestions prove 100% successful? No, but they can substantially increase the odds of achieving success. Much depends on the assumptions, understandings, and competencies of all involved. It also depends on the home environment and the quality of support given to teachers, learners, and parents.

Empathy and Congruent Actions

As teachers and parents, we often hear the word empathy. Why? Because it’s important, it’s mighty important. Genuinely empathetic listening and actions can influence struggling learners (and others) and improve relationships.

Empathy, as The New York Times made clear, involves "understating how others feel and being compassionate toward them.” By understanding how struggling learners interpret and feel about the world around them, teachers and parents can better plan instruction that motivates struggling learners to succeed.

In contrast, teachers and parents who fail to show little to no genuine empathy often find themselves in positions of little influence. In such situations, many teachers and parents rely on anger, scolding, and punishment, strategies that easily provoke resentment and retaliation. When struggling learners retaliate, many teachers and parents feel bewildered, remorseful, and anguished. A miserable situation for everyone.

So how can teachers, support staff, and parents demonstrate understanding and compassion?

They can start to address the struggling learner’s immediate needs by:

  • Asking relevant questions, such as “How are you feeling?” or “If I’m not mistaken, you look sad. Maybe I can help you. Would you like to talk about it?”
  • Showing support when support is needed. “It sounds like Mrs. Fay’s homework is overwhelming you. Would you like me to discuss this with her? Maybe she and I can find a solution that the both of you will like.”
  • Making comments that support the learner’s interest. “You and Melissa looked like you were having fun on the basketball court. The two of you took some good shots. Nice going.”
  • Being available. “Freddie, if you need to talk, you can call me between two and five in the late afternoon. Here’s my phone number….”

Support for Parents and Guardians

Many people have said to Danielle Foley, one of the authors, “You’re a teacher. Teaching your kids at home must be easy.”

But as Danielle knows, it’s not.

She knows:

“It’s hard for all parents. Despite my rules and schedule, the distractions pile up. The dog barks, someone’s hungry, UPS delivers a box, the phone rings, a drink spills on the carpet. The list seems endless.

I, however, have an advantage over many parents, especially parents of young children and struggling learners. I’m an experienced special education teacher and mother of a struggling learner. This has made one thing clear: Struggling learners, regardless of age, will need hours of quality attention, attention that many well-intentioned parents can’t give.”

Some can’t because of insecurity, logistics, and dangerous realities: Loneliness; a job loss; an empty refrigerator; an eviction notice; no Internet; one laptop, three children squabbling for it. The result: Anger, fear, depression, and exhaustion. It’s infectious. It quickly infects the children. Thus, to help struggling learners achieve their academic, social, and emotional goals, teachers, counselors, school psychologists, social workers, school nurses, and administrators need to step into the breach. In systematic and well-coordinated ways, they need to provide parents with whatever help they can.

Some parents will need but want little to no help. Some parents — parents whose problems scar their very being — will need and want considerable help. To directly help these parents, school staff can frequently schedule private calls and small-group video meetings with them. By listening to them empathically and applying problem-solving strategies, staff might help them get counseling, get refurbished computers, get free clothing, learn some helpful teaching strategies, find neighborhood food banks, and implement the “Tips” two paragraphs below.

Though staff may well fall short of solving all the problems faced by these parents, their efforts may well provide parents with the information and confidence needed to succeed. This too may infect their children. But this time, it’s positive.

In “9 Tips for Motivating Children to Learn at Home,” the American Psychological Association offers critical tips for parents. Below, in abbreviated form, are five of these tips.

Allow children to choose from an array of learning tasks and provide input into how they will complete their work.

Involve children in planning timelines to complete learning tasks and allow them to monitor their own progress in meeting their timelines.

Give children feedback that is specific, credible, [supportive], and genuine.

Reframe the mistake children make as opportunity to learn and involve them in planning ways to improve their work.

Help students set goals for their work that are short-term, specific, and moderately difficult.

Moderately difficult goals are those well within the struggling learner’s reach. Success requires him to make reasonable but not herculean efforts. When frequently demanded, herculean efforts engender frustration and fatigue, which lay the groundwork for distain and defiance.

For school staff to effectively provide parents and students with whatever help they need, school boards and administrators will need to provide school staff with the necessary resources. This includes training, time, schedules, consultation, and equipment. Although budgetarily daunting in these chaotic times, not doing so will have dire consequences.

Belief-Enhancing Strategies

Functionally, positive self-efficacy is a struggling learner’s justifiable belief that “I can succeed on this task. I have the ability.” If he believes the task is important enough, he’ll probably make a reasonable effort. If he believes it’s unimportant, he might not.

In contrast, negative self-efficacy is a struggling learner’s belief — justified or unjustified — that “I can’t succeed.” History may have taught him that failure and humiliation are inevitable. Thus, he may defy efforts to involve him. As such, he may look mournfully into space as he noisily shakes his chair.

In both instances, self-efficacy is the student’s belief that he can or can’t succeed on specific tasks. Sometimes, students are right.

As it stands, Edwin, a struggling learner, can’t succeed on the assigned task; to succeed, he needs the password, the strategy for success. Without the strategy, and without believing he can succeed, he won’t try. Sheila’s different. History’s taught her that she can succeed. So, she’ll try.

Self-efficacy is important but often hard to measure. But like many hard-to-measure things, you know it when you see or hear it repeatedly. For this new task, Luz’s self-efficacy is submerged in deep, swirling water. Two hints make this clear. Hint number one: Repeatedly, Luz says, “I’m confused. I can’t do it. I won’t do it.” Hint number two: She doesn’t.

Here are Luz’s realities. Reality number one: The task is way above her independent or instructional levels. Reality number two: Her behavior makes sense.

So, in a nutshell, why is self-efficacy important? Because, it drives behavior. Often, it’s the critical factor motivating students. At one end of the spectrum, it motivates effort. At the other end, resistance.

In one of our articles one self-efficacy, Dr. Patrick McCabe (now at Mercy College) and I described numerous ways to strengthen the self-efficacy of struggling learners (Self-efficacy: The key to improving the motivation of struggling learners). From this article, here are three ways that teachers and parents can overcome some of the limitations of remote instruction.

Frequently link new tasks to recent successes. For example, as teachers and parents introduce new tasks, they can show struggling learners how the new tasks resemble recent ones on which they succeeded. Teachers and parents can also ask struggling learners to identify three similarities in the older and newer tasks. Identifying similarities helps to strengthen struggling learners’ self-efficacy and willingness to actively engage in the new task. Ideally, he’ll think, “I succeeded then, I’ll succeed now.”

Teach needed learning strategies. If you want to boot up your computer, you need to know the password. In other words, you need to know the secret, the combination. Similarly, struggling learners need to know the step-by-step learning strategy for achieving success on the tasks before them.

If you don’t know your computer’s password, ask your spouse, your kids, or your password program. Most likely, you’ll quickly find the secret. Mastering critical learning strategies takes more time, but it’s not necessarily difficult, especially when the strategies are taught one step at a time; steps are systematically combined; demonstrations are short, crisp, and clear; struggling learners have frequent opportunities to practice correctly; and teachers provide strong support, such as quick, realistic, and motivating feedback.

But if a learning strategy has five steps, is it worth the effort? If the strategy is important, if the struggling learner will use it over and over, the answer is simple: Yes.

And once a struggling learner masters the learning strategy, aka the password, it can serve him well for months, even years. In doing so, it eliminates a major barrier to motivation, to learning, to success.

Availability is one of the nice things about learning strategies. Teachers can make or find videos and directions that they can post on their website, so parents and struggling learners can see and use them whenever they want.

Will learning strategies help struggling learners master whatever tasks they face? No. Truly overwhelming tasks will remain overwhelming.

All activities in which teachers and parents provide instruction, practice, and feedback, must reflect the struggling learner’s appropriate instructional level, the level at which the task is moderately challenging but not overwhelming. Analogously, tasks at this level ask struggling learners to stretch their hands a doable four to five inches, not an impossible four to five yards. A comfortable four to five inches is the level at which teachers need to directly instruct and support struggling learners.

Ideally, with their teachers’ direct instruction, feedback, and needed supports, struggling learners should look at the tasks and think, “If I make a reasonable effort and follow my teacher (or parent’s) suggestions and instructions, I can do this. I’ve done it before.” (For more information on instructional level, please see;

Teach students to make facilitative attributions. In other words, teach them to correctly identify and acknowledge what they should take credit for and what they need to improve upon. In teaching this, teachers and parents should focus on these elements: Correctly using the right learning strategy at the right time in the right way, making a reasonable effort to succeed, and when necessary, persevering.

Orlando, a mythical third grader with strong oral vocabulary abilities, incorrectly answered one of five reading comprehension questions about a story at his proper instructional level. When his teacher asked why he did so poorly, he focused on the instructional strategy she had emphasized. He said “I didn’t scan the materials and I didn’t ask what I knew, what I didn’t, and what I wanted to learn. Next time, I’ll focus on all three.”

Though Orlando is mythical, he’s an amalgam of numerous students who benefited from blending self-efficacy with learning strategies.

Today’s Reality

Today, in the era of COVID-19, teachers, support staff, administrators, students, and parents are perplexed by mountains of insecurities and fragile, untested solutions. Nevertheless, it’s vital that all educators and parents make informed, justifiable, and sustained efforts to succeed. Struggling learners, other learners, their parents, and the nation depend upon us. Some hours of the school day will likely give us well-deserved emotional boosts, while others will make us wonder, “How can I do better?”

Because we know so little about COVID-19 and remote instruction, mistakes will happen. Occasionally, they’ll predominate. In a sense, we’re like toddlers learning to walk; at times we’ll stumble and scratch our knees. Nevertheless, like toddlers, we need to persist. Through persistence, monitoring, self-reflection, learning, and adaptation, we may well make this upcoming school year far more successful than last year.