Struggling learners’ difficulties have intensified: Here’s what can help
Monday, October 19, 2020
In this chaotic, volatile, and frightening era of COVID-19, struggling learners’ difficulties have intensified. Wherever remote learning has replaced some or all in-person instruction, many struggling learners have found it extremely difficult to focus, to understand, and to apply what teachers are trying to teach.
“The move to remote-instruction by many New Jersey districts has been tough on many students, but none more than those with disabilities.”
What’s the answer, the answer that will vanquish these problems? There’s no one answer. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But for some struggling learners, the suggestions in this article can help. They can help learners, they can help teachers, and just as important, they can help parents.
In essence, these ideas suggest that IEP Teams:
- Have struggling learners focus on a small number of critical topics and annual goals.
- Increase the achievability of annual goals by parsing them into short-term objectives.
- Provide struggling learners with numerous opportunities to practice and apply what’s taught.
Small Numbers of Topics and Short-Term Objectives
To be effective, the substance of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be Important, Effective, and Personalized. It must focus on achievable, moderately challenging — not confusing or frustrating — short-term objectives critical to the learner’s academic, social, emotional, physical, and recreational needs. In other words, IEP teams should consider this overarching question: What must the learner achieve to significantly advance in these areas?
Although this question sounds simple, it’s not. To successfully answer it, IEP Teams need to focus on today’s reality, the “now reality,” the reality often characterized by tremendous anxiety and confusion, fewer or no hours of in-person instruction, and insufficient resources (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/summer20/vol77/num10/Maintaining-Connections,-Reducing-Anxiety-While-School-Is-Closed.aspx; https://www.vox.com/21429008/kids-covid-19-schools-students-remote-stress; https://naacp.org/coronavirus/coronavirus-impact-on-students-and-education-systems/).
To successfully address each struggling learner’s “now reality,” IEP teams need to thoroughly answer four “now” questions derived from the struggling learner’s annual goals.
- What’s most important for the learner to achieve within the next 10-week marking period.
- What’s achievable and comfortable for teachers and for parents within the next 10-week marking period.
- What supports are available today and within the next 10-week marking period?
- What’s reasonable for the learner to achieve within the next 10-week marking period?
But why so many questions? Because IEPs backfire if they aim to teach too many skills and competencies in too little time. Teachers, struggling learners, and parents cannot pay adequate attention to each skill and competency.
Regrettably, in the “now reality” of COVID-19 the number of topics, goals, and short-term objectives that were reasonable before the onslaught of COVID-19, when remote instruction was rare and in-person, full-day instruction was the norm, are no longer reasonable. Thus, the “now reality” calls for more assiduous prioritizing of topics, goals, and short-term objectives.
Think of it this way. You detest the taste of milk. But your medication requires you to drink 8 ounces of milk with your pill. So, you compromise. Grudgingly, you drink 2 ounces. By compromising, you’re inadvertently sabotaging yourself. The same holds true for IEPs designed to teach too many different skills and competencies in too little time. Too little time sabotages success.
Opportunities to Practice and Apply
To achieve success, struggling learners need to invest adequate time on each task, spend considerable time focusing on and thinking about the task’s most important aspects, correctly respond to the teacher’s feedback, intermittently review and correctly practice everything over several weeks.
This takes considerable time. Thus, too many short-term objectives in too short a time means too little time to master them. It’s like having to swim 10 Olympic laps after one swimming lesson. Your probability of success? Zero. My probability? Zero. But after 30 lessons, we’re champs.
Criteria for Short-Term Objectives
So, what criteria should you use to limit the number of topics, goals, and short-term objectives? The critical criterion is the importance of the topic to the struggling learner’s immediate future, such as a 10-week marking period. Answering questions like those below will help you identify the most important short-term objectives.
Question: For Melissa to move from a late third-grade instructional level in expository reading to a beginning fourth-grade instructional level, what must she master, what must she demonstrate?
Question: For Dakin to overcome his feelings of loneliness, what does he need to master and demonstrate to make and maintain two friendships in his remote learning class?
Clearly, identifying what’s most important to struggling learners’ short-term success requires knowing them as people rather than an array of test scores. It requires a realistic understanding of their motivation, abilities, and stressors. It also requires schools to identify and remove or mitigate all barriers to success.
Opportunities to Practice and Apply
Beyond the need to limit IEPs to the most important short-term objectives, it’s critical to limit instruction to realities, to what’s needed to master the objective. Teaching Melissa to achieve a fourth-grade instructional level will require 45 minutes of daily small-group instruction from a masters-level reading specialist. But giving her only 20 minutes daily won’t work. It’s akin to expecting that a once-a-day baby aspirin will cure raging migraine attacks. The outcome: Persistent pain.
Opportunities to practice and apply new concepts, ideas, and strategies don’t require worksheet upon worksheet or hour upon hour of silent, abstract seatwork. Both backfire. They stifle curiosity, interest, and imagination. They deny struggling learners and other students what all people need: Positive social interactions. Given different contexts, some interactions need to be serious, some superficial, some funny, and some a mixture of all three.
Music, artwork, and cooperative-learning group activities can surmount much of the boredom and isolation inherent in many remote learning activities. Here, from Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation, is a standard cooperative learning activity called Think-Pair-Share/Write-Pair-Share.
- The instructor poses a question that demands analysis, evaluation, or synthesis.
- Students take a few minutes to think through an appropriate response.
- Students turn to a partner (or small groups) and share their responses. Take this a step further by asking students to find someone who arrived at an answer different from their own and convince their partner to change their mind.
- Student responses are shared within larger teams or with the entire class during a follow-up discussion.
Injecting such activities into remote learning instruction can spur interest, dispel boredom, and improve learning. Are such activities 100% effective? Probably not, but they can help many struggling learners.
Under the best of circumstances, parenting can be tough. The “new reality” makes it tougher. To a large extent, the “new reality” has forced schools to depend upon parents to carry heavy loads.
These loads may well include helping their children with homework, explaining new topics, and teaching their children to apply procedures they themselves never learned. It may also involve helping their children cope with loneliness, anxiety, and in some cases, depression.
Sadly, many parents need to do this while dealing with illnesses, unemployment, food scarcity, eviction notices, utility cutoffs, and so on. Looking at the previous sentence makes one thing clear: The word “tough” may minimize the reality of many children and parents. For many parents, including me, juggling such a load may prove impossible.
So, how can parents help their children achieve their short-term IEP objectives? Many parents can help if schools help them.
Here are four ways that schools can help:
- Create a hotline for parents’ questions and concerns as well as referrals to agencies that can help them.
- Have regular video or phone conferences with parents. Here, school personnel can listen attentively and help parents to solve some of the issues they’re facing.
- Make short videos that demonstrate how to how to listen to their children, how to plan and structure home learning time, and how to help with homework.
- Teach parents to use practical memory strategies that everyone in the family can use.
In normal times, it’s important to focus on a small and achievable number of topics, goals, and short-term objectives. However, in the era of COVID-19, when struggling learners are completely involved in remote instruction or receive an inadequate amount of in-person instruction, it’s even more important.
Therefore, it’s critical that teachers and parents pay careful attention to the principles and activities that have worked in the past and do all that’s feasible to adapt them to the “now reality.”
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