In normal times, it’s often difficult to teach struggling learners (SLs). Now, with the life-threatening dangers of COVID-19; the widespread restrictions to daily life; the isolation, loneliness, and anxieties felt by innumerable children, parents, and teachers; and dependence on remote instruction like Zoom and Google Meet, it’s even harder. Nevertheless, teachers and parents must do whatever they can to help SLs achieve academic, social, and emotional success. As always, this requires minimizing or eliminating barriers to success while directly promoting success.

As a follow up to two articles that identified barriers to SLs’ success — poor sleep, poor nutrition, insufficient physical activity, heavy demands on willpower, and poor expectations of success — this article focuses on SLs’ aversion to specific tasks.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the limitations of remote instruction, the concepts and strategies in this article and the articles referenced above can improve your odds of helping SLs succeed. And as always, the environment and quality of implementation are critical.

Turning Poor Expectations of Satisfaction into Positive Ones

SLs, like all of us, create solid, almost intuitive expectations from our experiences. Such expectations are so ingrained and automatic that we believe we know, without question, what will happen. For example, neither I nor SLs expect that the first floor of a ground-level supermarket will collapse suddenly. We don’t challenge it, we accept it, we don’t even think about it.

We also know what we like and dislike, what we’re willing to work for, what we’re willing to go out of our way for, and what we’re not. I, for example, avoid fried foods. I haven’t eaten them in decades. But I would eat a fried fish sandwich and a huge batch of French fries if…. If a person I trusted agreed to donate $150 to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of my favorite charities. Why? What’s happening here?

For me, eating fried foods is a low-probability behavior or task: a behavior or task I dislike, a behavior I’m loath to commit, a behavior I actively avoid. I’ll call this a dislikeable behavior or task.

Nevertheless, the outcome, eating for an IRC donation is a high-probability behavior or task, a behavior I’d voluntarily commit. I’ll call it a reinforcing behavior or task. In other words, I’d readily commit this dislikeable behavior task if I’m reinforced by a far more powerful reinforcing behavior or task, something I value greatly.

Systematically using reinforcing behaviors to motivate SLs to engage in dislikeable behaviors is the essence of the Premack Principle, a powerful Applied Behavior Analysis strategy pioneered by Dr. David Premack.

If you know what an SL likes and dislikes, and you know the strength of his feelings, you’re in a good position to ensure that he’ll perform the dislikeable task if he’s sure he’ll succeed and believes his success is worth the effort. This is a reinforcing behavior. Yes, I may not want to eat the fried fish and French fries, but for a $150 donation to the IRC, I’ll eat it. For $150 donation, I’ll even eat two.

Would this satisfy me? Yes. I value the $150 donation much more than I’m concerned about fried foods. So it is with the Premack Principle. The attraction of the reinforcing behaviormust be substantially greater than the aversion to the dislikeable behavior.

The bottom line? Like all of us, SLs will likely engage in dislikeable behaviors and tasks they would normally avoid — if they think they’ll succeed and they see the reinforcer — the reinforcing behavior — as valuable, satisfying, and worth the effort.

To ensure success, teachers and parents should only present dislikeable tasks that SLs can succeed on if they need to make reasonable but not herculean efforts, use the right strategies in the right ways, and persist when needed. Tasks likely to overwhelm or frustrate them will backfire, regardless of the value with which they view the reinforcing tasks.

Persuading Struggling Learners

Occasionally, the Premack Principle, like all interventions, will fall short of expectations. An SL’s attraction to a reinforcing behavior may have been weaker than thought, his aversion to the dislikeable behavior may have been stronger than thought, or both. Here, persuasive words, given to one SL or to small groups of three or four in remote teaching sessions, can thwart this problem.

Following are several prompts that extend Dr. Patrick McCabe’s (of Mercy College) suggestions for persuading SLs that they can succeed, that trying is worth the effort (Convincing Students They Can Learn to Read: Crafting Self-Efficacy Prompts. The Clearing House. Vol. 79, No. 6, July-August 2006).

In line with the research on self-efficacy — an SL’s belief that he has or doesn’t have the ability to succeed on a particular task — these suggested prompts are grouped into the four sources of self-efficacy: Enactive mastery (accomplishment); vicarious experiences (modeling); verbal persuasion (attribution); and physiological (physical feelings). As you study them, note their specificity, note that they’re tied to SLs’ tangible and verifiable actions and experiences.

Enactive Mastery: Help SLs recognize that they succeeded on similar tasks.

  • Last week you succeeded on a task just like today’s. You earned a B-plus. Here’s your paper. I have confidence in you. You can do it again.
  • Look at these two long paragraphs that you wrote last week. You earned a B-plus. You can be proud of yourself. Now, write three short paragraphs on the topic you picked this morning. You succeeded last week. You can succeed again.

Vicarious Experiences: Help SLs see how students like them — students they identify with — have succeeded.

  • I’m glad you saw how your friend Julian used the 1-2-3 strategy to solve the problem. He didn’t give up. Just like him, you have the grit and knowledge to make 1-2-3 work for you. Try it on this problem.
  • You’re right. That’s exactly what Oscar did. Like Oscar, you can hit a home run. Try it on this problem.

Verbal Persuasion: Help SLs realize that they have the knowledge and skill to succeed. All they need to do is make a reasonable effort.

  • Because you have the knowledge and skill to succeed, I’m confident that you’ll succeed if you make a good effort. Try it. I’ll come back in 10 minutes to see how you did.
  • You followed the strategy and decoded five difficult words. That’s 100%. You aced it. Keep using the strategy. It works.

Physiological/Affective State: Physiological symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, and quick shallow breathing, often imply pessimism and fear. In contrast, sincere smiles and happy expressions often imply optimism and comfort.

  • That smile on your faces tells me that you think you followed the strategy and did well. You did. The whole group did very well. Congratulate yourselves; you followed the strategy.
  • Did you realize that you focused on the task without fidgeting? And you did well on it. You can be proud of your effort.

Three Critical Ingredients

Proper instructional and independent level materials and tasks are the first ingredient for remote instruction to work. Frustration level lessons and tasks that produce confusion, struggles, and scorn must be avoided, especially when no one can immediately rectify the situation and replace scorn with realistic and encouraging optimism. For more information on proper instructional and independent levels, see these two articles:

And when it’s difficult to identify specific levels, look at the SLs’ faces, on task behavior, and work products. Sometimes, this is all that’s needed to know it’s time to lighten their load, to reduce the degree of difficulty.

Personalized, supportive instruction and encouragement is the second ingredient. They’re needed to counter the widely held feeling that remote instruction is cold, boring, and impersonal. This undermines instruction and can evoke distress and indifference.

One way to counter these perceptions is to provide small group sessions in which teachers and counselors play games with SLs and other students, provide guidance, and share personal stories. This creates numerous opportunities to listen to SLs and other students, to learn about them, to display genuine interest in their thoughts and well-being, and to help them solve problems. These actions can help teachers and counselors create strong positive relationships with all students, relationships that form the foundation for academic, social, and emotional learning for SLs, other students, and teachers.

Parents are the third but often ignored factor, a factor that will have lasting effects — positive or negative — on their children’s academic, social, and emotional development. Countless parents, however, want to help their children but don’t know how to.

To help parents, teachers can hold weekly meetings to answer their questions and concerns, demonstrate teaching strategies, and explain how parents can prepare their children for upcoming lessons. Similarly, school counselors, school psychologists, and behavioral specialists can hold weekly meetings to help parents deal with a variety of social and emotional issues. They can also meet privately with parents to discuss more sensitive issues.