I’ve worked with lots of struggling kids over the years. They’re my favourite. These are the students who are so easily passed over, written off or who spend time in our classrooms but never quite achieve the growth they should. I am passionate about being an advocate for the children who need understanding, support and a little bit of love. They need teachers who fight for them, teachers who believe in them and teachers who let them know, unequivocally, that they are on their side.
To be literate is to be worthy. To be literate is to be seen as intelligent. Children who cannot read or experience difficulty learning to do so often feel a deep sense of shame. They don’t need to be told that there is a difference between them and other children. They already know.
The absolute best thing that a teacher can do to support a student is to send a very clear message
You’re never alone when I’ve got your back!
We can send this message in many ways in our classrooms to every child.
- Tell them very clearly that you like them, that you believe in them and that the two of you are in this thing together.
- Build a classroom culture that truly values student growth and celebrate that growth loudly. We don’t save our cheers at a football game for after the full-time buzzer. As soon as it looks like our team is doing something good, we yell and scream and encourage them to keep going. Also, don’t only celebrate ‘achievement’. After all, it’s the small steps in growth that lead to achievement in the end.
- Praise often. Catch your students doing things approximately write and be specific. It doesn’t take long to say, ‘Oh, I love your handwriting. I can see how hard you have been working’ or ‘you blended those words like a superstar. Gosh I’m proud of you’. There is good reason to praise students often. Positive feedback releases dopamine into the brain which then encourages the student to repeat the actions that lead to the praise.
- Tell your students what is going to happen and then do what you say. If you say, “I’m not going to ask you to do things you don’t know how to do” then you need to back it up by not putting things in front of children that they don’t know how to do. If you accidentally slip up (and who among us doesn’t?) then own the mistake. Tell the student/s freely that you made a mistake and gave them the wrong work. Apologize and then make things better.
- Don’t ask children to perform tasks that you know they don’t know how to do and certainly don’t ask them to ‘just have a go’. Nothing builds resentment and helplessness quicker than being given a book to read that has print that you simply cannot decipher or being asked to ‘write a story’ when you can’t sound out words.
- Stack the deck in your classroom so that children can be successful. Of course learning involves challenge and we need to support children to view mistakes as learning opportunities, but our job is make success a reality. Provide small goals and celebrate achieving those goals more often. Learning isn’t the prize for those who can perform. It’s the state of being that every child should be able to expect when they come to school.
More broadly, the start of this year is your chance to get it right from the start. Setting up children to fail, even unintentionally, can make earning your students’ trust that much harder. Children, especially those children at risk or who are victims of trauma, assess the safety of every situation they are in. Emotional and academic safety is just as real as physical safety. If you can’t earn your students’ trust they will not learn from you. In fact, not only will they not learn from you, but they will be more likely to engage in distracting and negative behaviours that seriously impact learning for all in your classroom.
Building trust can take a long time for vulnerable children. Remember that vulnerability can occur due to home factors or school factors such as previously feeling stupid because they can’t do what their friends can. You can avoid setting the year up for failure by:
- Not giving the whole class a writing task before you know more about them and have an idea of how to scaffold appropriately.
- Finding out about reading levels before asking children to read out loud.
- Reading a student’s Educational Adjustment Plan in preparation for meeting and working with them. Not sure who has an adjustment plan? Make it your business to find out.
- Reviewing the recommendations of psychologists or speech therapists and putting them in place
- Using an I do, we do, you do approach to support student learning
You can set every day up for success by:
- Greeting every child by looking them in the eye and smiling. This simple thing can make a huge difference
- Tell them that you are pleased to be their teacher (and mean it)
- Making contact with families in the first week or so of term to build a connection between home and school
- Learning about students at the start of the year; not just how many brothers and sisters they have but which areas of learning they feel confident with and which they would like more help with.
- Taking the time to spend a few moments with each child individually in the first week of school and then spending quality time with those who need extra support. Struggling kids needs the teacher’s time as a matter of urgency. Assistants are a brilliant resource to support students, but make the time in your week for YOU to work with that child. Not only does this provide the expertise that students needs but it sends a very clear message that they are worthy of your time.
- Make routines and schedules and stick to them. Children thrive on the right mix of predictability and novelty, with most of the day being predictable. It makes them feel safe and able to engage.
- Teach using evidence based practices that support the learning of all students.
All children can learn. Every single one of them, but some kids need to feel that you are on their side before they will even attempt the work that makes them feel scared. Focus on building trust as you kick of the 2020 school year. You will be building a classroom where every child grows.
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