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5 ways you can enable learners who struggle in class


May 10, 2019

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Penrhos College

What can parents and teachers do to help enable learners who struggle in class regularly? Sometimes it can feel like an uphill battle for the student, parents and teachers. After all, many of these kids are considered highly intelligent and verbally competent. So it hurts parents and teachers when they witness them feeling stressed or lapse into boredom when they have trouble learning in class.

How can we help them? What are strategies we can apply to enable learners who grapple with the daily pressures of classroom learning? Moreover, how do we do it in a way that makes them want to keep learning and growing even beyond school?


Seek first to understand

Parents and teachers sometimes assume they know what’s going on. We lack understanding of the cause of a particular child’s difficulties and are ready to put adult-imposed sanctions upon them. Worse, some may make the dangerous assumption of labeling them as “a bad kid” or “hopeless” or “impossible to help.”

In such cases we need to examine what lies beneath the surface of their turmoil. Why do they have problems understanding or coping? It’s because of lagging skills. A child can sometimes simply lack the skills to adapt to challenging situations. We must help such children identify the unsolved problem and then help them acquire the necessary skills. Dr. Ross Greene says it best:

“If you want to solve a problem with a child, you’re going to need a problem-solving partner: the child. If the child’s concerns aren’t identified and addressed, the problem will remain unsolved.”

Don’t overreact when a student struggles or has anxiety. We begin to enable learners like this by acting in a calm manner when they display such behaviour. The calmer and more patient you are, the more likely they will be to settle down and focus on the problem with you.


Get to know them on a personal level

The truth is that struggling students are not always struggling, so don’t ignore them when they’re calm. This is when you can engage them, talk to them, and get them involved in an activity. The worst time to try to teach them is in the middle of a panic episode or when they’ve shut down completely.

Why impose an impromptu, timed multiplication quiz or stressful home study tasks upon a struggling child? We already know they labour with these because they can’t write or think fast enough or understand. They’re more likely to get discouraged and give up. Instead, make additional home study enjoyable and assessments formative and frequent before the final exam. Talk them through solutions before it becomes too late and offer good feedback along the way.


Find out how they learn best

A dad planned out a home lesson complete with visuals. He tried to lead his son in the lesson, but the child got up and began manipulating the projector and grabbing the mouse. Everything was seemingly designed to derail his dad’s carefully planned lesson.

The dad finally said, “Can we pause for a minute? I think we’re on different pages here. Can you tell me what the purpose of today’s lesson is?” The boy couldn’t tell him, so he stated the objective clearly. “Do you understand what that means? Can you repeat it? Or put it in your own words so I know you understand?”

His son did just that, and his dad then said to him, “Well, how can I help you get there? Is the screen too distracting? Are the images on the wall confusing? What would you do to achieve the goal I set out for us today?” He was asking the boy to explain how his actions got them closer to the goal. In the end, the boy crafted his own path to the goal and took responsibility for his own learning.

This happened in a one-on-one situation where the teacher could allow the child to take control of the classroom, with adult as a guided support.


Teach the growth mindset

Intelligence is not fixed; it can be enhanced with diligence and an understanding of what mindset you are operating under. The perfect tool for enabling learners is understanding how intention affects progress and productivity.

Ask those struggling students to be aware of which mindset they have in situations that are challenging and daunting. When they can think clearly, they realise that they can work toward a solution. They just have to be creative and not get stuck.

Don’t tell them they’re smart, either—that’s a label. When they have difficulty, they’ll wonder why they’re not being smart. Instead, praise them for using “number skills” or “perseverance skills.” Note they are exercising their brains by doing something different. Praise them for working hard to find a solution in the face of adversity. Instill in them the idea that they can make their intelligence grow simply by doing.


Expect the best from them (and give it)

There is a fine line between setting your expectations high and knowing what a child’s “ceiling” is. Unrealistic expectations with no guidance is like throwing them into the forest and expecting them to use skills they don’t have to survive. Be supportive but challenging at the same time. In other words, keep your expectations high but realistic.

Without a clear pathway to success, struggling students have difficulty seeing the big picture and how to navigate toward a solution. Clear step-by-step instructions, even picture instructions and checklists, can help struggling children get simple tasks done.


Enable learners now and forever

Understand that your kids will have good days and bad days. When it comes to enabling learners, who seem affected by constant challenge, you can be their guide.  Empower them to recognise how they learn and allow that strategy to play out. Define learning objectives collaboratively with the child, being specific and clear. It takes extra time, effort, and energy to help struggling students, but in the end, the extra effort pays off.

Written by Lee Watanabe Crockett.
Penrhos College Junior School has earned international acclaim in its quest to shift practice and improve student engagement under the consultation of Global Digital Citizen Foundation founder Lee Watanabe Crockett since 2017. Learn more at his website globaldigitalcitizen.org/