Surprising Teaching Move Leads to Success with Struggling Students:

As educators, we know the importance of having clear objectives. We know that we need to differentiate our instruction, even if we don’t always know how for the populations we serve. However, did you also know that research shows significant results when teachers work to create a culture where students are encouraged to and feel at ease asking for explanations and asking for help?

So why is that, you ask? There is a certain amount of vulnerability in asking for help and telling a teacher in front of an audience that you don’t understand something and need additional explanation. In an age where image and social pressure is growing by the second, these are behaviors that have to be explicitly taught, fostered, and encouraged. This idea that students’ self-confidence and ability to maintain a positive attitude about themselves even when they don’t understand has an incredible impact on their ability to engage with the content and practice their new learning correctly.

Additionally, many struggling learners and ELLs have high anxiety when it comes to speaking in public – especially early in their language development. This affect towards engaging orally in class could have a critical negative impact for kids. Students who are too anxious to verbalize their lack of understanding and need for additional help slide further behind in the access to grade level content. Educators must also be alert to possible delays in their language development. The reality is that language production is incredibly complex, which is why there is a great deal of anxiety around it for some learners. But if we cannot find a way to ease that affect towards speech in general, and more specifically towards asking for help and clarification, the students’ learning potential will not be realized.

Finally, when struggling students are stressed, they go into a “survival mode” or “fight or flight” mode of thinking. The stimuli that cause students’ stress levels to rise and to feel stress range from the physical space, to emotional climate of the class, connections a child may have to other negative events, and people’s interpretations of every interaction. When students feel stressed based on one or more of these possible events, they do shift into a mental “survival mode”. While in this mode, learners are not able to cognitively perform at higher levels. Some may find themselves “going blank”, others preoccupied with getting called on by the teacher, and still others may just have a general sense of being incapable of grasping the content that is being shared with them. And how does one ask questions, when they are at such a loss and state of stress.

So what can teachers do:

  1. Help students to be question conscious – that is to notice the questions they have and to enjoy asking questions that take their learning deeper.
  2. Incentivize students being brave by asking for help and explanations when they need it.
  3. Set up a place, structure, or cue for less verbal students to ask for help and explanations. This could be anything from flipping a card on their desk to flipping down the corner of their paper.
  4. Allow group influence to support the work. Many times, if one person does not understand something, there is another who feels the same, but did not ask. By encouraging the class to thank the person asking the question for helping them all to learn, you allow the class to be part of how you reinforce that very behavior.
  5. Create a buddy system. Encourage students to take care of each other by seeing if their buddy has any questions and if they know how to successfully complete the work.