It can be frustrating working with a kid who just doesn’t understand what you’re teaching.  Believe me, I’ve been there.  You start to feel as though you’ve exhausted all possible explanations.  You feel as though you’ve tried to teach the same idea using every conceivable strategy.  And none of those strategies have worked.  At this point  it just feels like the student doesn’t want to learn, or they must be stubborn.

At this point many well-meaning adults blame the student.  We accuse them for not wanting to learn.  What follows are a series of negative labels that put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the student.  Examples of such labels are “lazy,” “slow,” “stubborn,” “unmotivated,” “slacker,” “rude,” etc.  These words, although they seem like an accurate description of the student, paint a negative picture of the child.  Additionally, well-meaning adults may give up on the child and move on with their lives.  They tell themselves that the student will learn it later.

But giving up helps nobody; not the child, their parents, or us as teachers.  In fact, without proper support, the child will struggle even more in the future.  They will possibly struggle through college and their adult life.  And yet, we feel that we as the teacher are at a loss.

What we need is to reframe our own thinking of these young delinquents.  We need alternative ways to think of struggling students.  For, these struggling learners, as frustrating as they may seem, really do need help.  After working with kids for many years, one of my lessons has been struggling students have some sort of unmet need(s).  And it’s our job to decode what those needs are.

Many well-meaning adults approach teaching with the mindset that their role is to pass on knowledge to the student; they believe the student’s job is to learn from them as the adult.  Furthermore, many people already have their own preconceived notions of the world (i.e. science, religion, social interactions, psychology, social interactions, etc.).  Most of us already think we know how to handle behavior in challenging students.  And that’s the problem.  Adults aren’t approaching instruction by becoming a learner themselves.  They lack the curiosity to learn about new concepts.

In order to shift our mindset about struggling students, the first step is to abandon our notion that the child is responsible.  One of the things I’ve learned through my own teaching experience is struggling students are kids who lack skills.  This means adults need to take responsibility for the child’s growth.  (O.k., I know this might sound preposterous, and I do believe that kids hold some responsibility.)  In order to do this, we need to see ourselves as learners, not just of academic content but of other concepts (i.e. learning disabilities, emotional disorders, trauma, abuse, etc.)  We need to be willing to challenge our current view points.  If we are to effectively help struggling students, we need to effectively identify what it is they struggle with.

We then need to evaluate what skills the child is missing.  This is where becoming a learner is crucial.  If the missing skills are to be uncovered, it’s imperative to think outside of what you already know.  These skills may be the product of other ways of thinking that you have little knowledge about.

I also feel that it is highly important to brainstorm new terminology to use.  This terminology needs to be neutral rather than accusatory.  I feel that this step of carefully selecting neutral words is so important.  So much of the terminology we use is actually accusatory.  It pins the responsibility on other individuals.  And, believe it or not, the words we use have a much bigger impact on the way people think.  Words such as “lost,” “distracted,” “nervous,” “willful,” paint a very different picture of the student in question.  Not only are they non-accusatory, these words also shift the perspective from that of the adult to that of the student.  These words convey the experience the student is having rather than that of the adult.

Putting yourself on the student’s team is crucial.  I always like listening to podcasts about kids, parenting, teaching, etc.  Often, I find some nugget of information that I can fit into my own job.  It was in a parenting podcast produced by Ellie and Jared that I heard of a father saying to his son, “It’s you and me against the problem.”  This father had figured out that it was more effective to team up with his son and work through any issues.  It’s not uncommon to get caught up in our own frustrations that we forget how the other person in the situation is feeling.  It regards to challenging students, we need to remember that the student is struggling emotionally as well.  They themselves would like to find a sense of peace with their challenges.  Seeing yourself as a team with the student is one way to remember this.

I like to think of struggling students as having unidentified and hidden talents.  One way I do this is I remind myself that I’m not fighting against the child, but rather fighting to discover the right instruction or environment for each child.  Working with kids is so much more than getting kids to listen to you as the adult.  It’s about uncovering what works specifically for each student.  Some students don’t mind the larger environments and class-sizes, finding little difficulty in speaking up.  While other students might have a difficult time in large environments.

Lastly, turning to a strengths-based tends to be effective in helping to reframing our view of struggling students.  For those that are not familiar with the term, a strengths-based approach refers to initially identifying the things a student is good at.  After the strengths of the student are taken into account, teachers and parents can move onto tackling the weaknesses that a child has.  For instance, a child who struggles with reading might be incredibly social and a great leader.  This strengths-based approach reminds us of what the child is actually capable of, putting us in a position of leaning into their strengths.  It also reaffirms to the student that they do have talents that exist.

It’s crucial that we as adults find alternative ways of thinking about our struggling students.  They can feel frustrating at times, but they so desperately need our help.  Passing off students as if they will figure things out later does nobody any good.  For some of these kids might not figure things out later.  After all, these struggling students are the ones that need the most help.  They need the most patience and attention.

Alternative Ways to Think of Struggling Students

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