Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Meeting the Needs of Our Most Challenged Learners: Teaching is a Team Sport

How would you describe your most challenged learners? What creates the challenge?

I would describe my most challenged learners as those who are unable to learn successfully in the school setting. These are the students that don't make steady gains, demonstrate interest or investment, and who disrupt the overall classroom program.

These students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. There is not a one size fits all descriptor of these students as each of them is quite different from the other.

There is much we can do to teach these students well, and it's important to think about what it takes prior to the start of the school year so you are ready.

Ideally our most challenged students and their family members would be invited to a welcoming orientation each year. That orientation would include good food, enjoyable activities, and time to prepare for the school year ahead with regard to supplies, mindset, expectations, and needs. I have written about this a lot, and I do feel a big missing piece with regard to setting the stage for success for our most challenged students is the lack of meaningful, welcoming, and targeted orientations for these students. At my son's college, they do have an orientation like this in place and I have noticed that it helps to welcome students in ways that matter.

Know the Child
Typically exchanges occur between one year's teachers and the next. These exchanges are very important with regard to meeting the needs of challenged students. When you meet with last year's teachers, it's important to ask these questions:
  • Where did the child experience success?
  • What does the child enjoy?
  • What did the child need for greater success?
  • Where did the child experience the greatest challenge?
  • Who helped the child and how?
Once you've identified the children who have been most challenging, it's important to make time to sit down and have lunch with those children. Take the time to talk with them and ask those students, "What can I do to help you have a successful year?" Generally children know what they need to succeed.

Opportunity Gap
Often an opportunity gap exists for children who are challenged. For example, some may not have an adult at home that's able to read English. Others may not have the organization and/or financial resources at home to get needed supplies or computer access. Still more may have so many after school responsibilities and/or stressors that they are exhausted by the time they get to school and also have little time after school for anything to do with school success. Once you know where the opportunity gaps exist, try to fill those gaps with the support of students, colleagues, and the general school community.

Explicit Coaching
It's essential to carefully, thoughtfully, and strategically coach students who are challenged ahead. Make the time to know the child and assess his/her skills, knowledge, and concept in friendly, nonthreatening ways. Then sit down with the child and establish learning/community goals together. Check in regularly to reflect on the goals and revise as necessary. Find ways to inspire these children and provide them with vision for what their life could be. To inspire vision you may want to plan field studies, expert visitors, engaging meaningful projects, leadership opportunities, service learning, relevant content, and special jobs or opportunities. At all times work to establish a strong caring relationship with these children.

Family Support
It's vital to enlist the support of families with regard to all children and especially children who are challenged. Oftentimes, the families of these children are challenged too. Family challenges might include illness, addiction, poverty, joblessness, mental illness, job stress, and a lack of understanding with regard to what it takes to support young children well. If families have experienced trauma or challenge themselves, it's often difficult for those families to support their children.

Before jumping to conclusions, however, it's best to invite families in to talk about the child's year. Questions such as the following can foster a positive home-school connection:
  • What are your goals for your child's school experience this year?
  • How can I help you to help your child? What can I do?
  • Is there any area of school life that you want to know more about?
  • What resources do you need to support your child well?
When families struggle a lot, it's important to enlist the support of the school nurse, guidance counselor, social worker, and other local agencies. In general I find that families love their children deeply and want them to succeed, but at times families don't know what's available with regard to support, and it's our job to help fill in the gaps and support families as much as we can in this regard.

Explicit, Responsive Goals
It's critical to think carefully with colleagues, students, and family members when it comes to a child's goals. The goals should begin with the areas that distance a child the most from success at school. For example if a child is angry, the first goal is to find ways to diffuse that anger since angry children have difficulty learning. Simply finding a moment to dissect that anger by asking, "Why are you angry?" or "What's bothering you?" can begin that conversation. Then once a child shares his/her rationale for the anger, it's important that you value what he/she says and find a way to work together to make the situation better. Too often children will share their rationale only to be met with comments such as "That's not true," "You're imagining that," or "Count your blessings. . ." None of those comments or similar words help--what helps is to take a child seriously and begin to help him/her move forward by acknowledging their feelings and creating a path to betterment one step at a time.

Teamwork and Time Up Front To Plan and Strategize
Generally children who struggle work with many educators in a school. This is often part of the problem since typically educators have little time to goal set, talk, and make plans around the need of our most challenged students. Some systems, like the one I work in, have set aside time for these kinds of meetings and that's important. 

Educators, to be successful with challenged students, have to make the time to strategically set goals and discuss common practices and supports for the child. Time up front in this regard will support a child well. It's crazy to think that schools often don't make the time up front for these situations as when time is not made up front, the same amount of time or more is spent trying to mitigate the child's issues throughout the year. 

Consistent, Reliable, and Regular Support and Schedules
Students who are challenged thrive with consistent, reliable, and regular support. Too often in schools, schedules are not taken seriously. For example, a therapist who is supposed to show up every Monday at 12:00 to provide a service may rarely show up. When this kind of inconsistency occurs, the challenged child's program and the program for all other children erode. It's imperative that scheduling and supports are taken seriously and occur at regular intervals with as little disruption as possible. In the same regard, it's important that all service providers are covered by a substitute when they are ill or unable to provide the service. Too often special educators, therapists, English Language educators, and others are not covered when ill or out which serves to diminish the support and development possible for children.

Cultural Proficiency
Many of our students who struggle do not see themselves in the curriculum. I remember when I was in high school and I could rarely understand the books we were asked to read. Almost all of the books had male main characters and the experiences written about were significantly bent in the direction of male psychology and experience. I had little interest and less understanding. The same is true for all of our students when it comes to seeing themselves in the curriculum. It's vital that we bring the voices of multiple cultures, races, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyles, interests, and geography into our classrooms so students can find themselves, their interests, their dreams, and mentors in the curriculum.

So long ago when I taught first grade, we discussed what it takes to be a strong community. One little first grader, Steven, remarked that people had to have fun first if they wanted to work well together later. It's essential that school is fun for students. If it's all drudgery, reprimands, and failure, they're going to turn off.

Too often the goals we make for our classes are unapproachable for our most challenged students. As we think deeply about who these children are, it's imperative that we look for ways to scaffold the goals so that each step is within their grasp for success.

Believe in Them
We can never judge who our students are or what they will become. Over the years, I have worked with many struggling students, and I am always amazed at the success they attain as they move on in life. The children that don't succeed generally have lost support along the way with little to no positive parent or teacher coaching. However, in general, when family members and educators truly make the time to think about a child and support his/her positive, interest-based, and academic growth, those children do well. It's often when we give up on children and not gently and lovingly push them forward with our coaching, support, inspiration, and action do children fail. Yet, there's much about life we don't know, and sometimes unfortunate circumstances strike that are out of everyone's control--events the culture tries to make sense of, learn from, and better.

If every school system in the country made it their goal to reshape schools to teach the most challenged students well, they'd find that all students would do better. Taking care of our most needy school citizens first lays a path to success for all. 

These are some strategies to use in this regard. What would you add to the mix?