When a student does not master a concept, it can be frustrating for the student and for the teacher. However, it’s important to remember that the basic premise of education is to grow new knowledge, not simply to measure the knowledge already present. We cannot expect that students arrive to class with all the tools necessary to master every concept immediately or even at the same pace as their peers.
The most important strategy for dealing with struggling students, then, is to adjust the mindset of the educator, first. In order to effectively intervene with students who are struggling to learn, we must come to grips with two fundamental truths: 1) A learning difficulty, whether widespread and long-term or just during one particular lesson, is not something that can be solved by punishing or blaming a child; 2) By definition, as teachers, it is our job to help students who are struggling with a concept. It is our most critical function.
Once we take ownership and understand the opportunity being presented, we can start to move past the frustration and reframe the issue as a puzzle to be solved and a victory to be won together with the student.
Scaffolding is a preventative strategy that teachers use to ward off misunderstanding and allow students to apply learning to new situations. Scaffolding breaks down learning into manageable chunks for students. Each chunk is accompanied by a tool or structure that is chosen based on the learners’ Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is indicative of the learning that can take place between what a child is able to accomplish independently and what they can do with help.
Scaffolding strategies include modeling learning for students, accessing students’ prior knowledge, turn and talk time (such as Think-Pair-Share), front loading unfamiliar vocabulary, employing graphic organizers, and asking students to summarize their learning at intervals throughout the lesson. Scaffolding should be a carefully constructed part of the lesson that is established through the planning process to address areas of need of a group of students or to circumvent common misconceptions and misunderstandings, but it should not be confused with our next strategy.
Unlike scaffolding, differentiation refers to providing supports based on a particular student’s needs, rather than on common areas of need. Differentiation refers to the process of altering the assignment in a specific manner based on student data. Student choice is often misunderstood as differentiation, but effective differentiation is more like a prescription. An effective teacher is able to diagnose (or at least hypothesize) an individual student’s challenge or misconception in a particular lesson and provide support based on that information.
When assessment is conducted appropriately, wherein students are given specific, high quality formative assessments that inform and drive instruction, the results can be used to pinpoint a learning need. Applying an accommodation or modification to the assignment to support that need can move the child’s ZPD closer to that of their successful peers. Differentiation also differs from scaffolding in that it should be continuously responsive to student need, changing and adapting as the child’s achievement with each concept shifts, and it may need to happen in real time, as the lesson evolves.
Differentiation strategies include eliminating information or questions in order to prioritize the most important concepts of a lesson, assigning a more accessible text that covers similar content, or changing the assessment type in order to access the best of the student’s understanding. Differentiation might also include small-group instruction, when a common need among a few students can be established.
In a highly differentiated classroom, students may be working toward different learning outcomes while all focusing on the same standard. Using a child’s individual data to inform their instruction is the most effective means of intervening with struggling students because it values and leverages their individuality.
Listening and reading tend to be the two most common ways in which educators expect students to gain new knowledge. However, not everyone learns best by listening or reading. Multi-sensory instruction aims to capitalize on the ability of students to make better connections when more of their senses are involved in their learning. By using sight, sound, movement, and touch to help students create memories, multi-sensory instruction creates a whole child learning experience that helps students synthesize information by accessing it in the ways that feel most comfortable to them.
Graphic organizers are commonly presented in two ways: as a tool for use alongside a lesson to organize one’s thinking and on display in the classroom as a model for students and to create a visual reference for learning. Graphic organizers are popular because they are adaptable to a wide variety of content areas and topics, allow for on-going scaffolding of learning without the constant intervention of an adult (by providing a visual map for learning), and allow students to practice organizing new information in ways that make sense to them.
Graphic organizers can be used as a tool in both scaffolding and differentiating instruction, depending on the ways in which the graphic organizers are presented. However, the critical component is that students must be provided repeated, direct instruction in using these tools, so that they can recreate the organizational strategy on their own in order to continue to synthesize new knowledge in the future. The misstep with graphic organizers tends to be that students are given too many different graphic organizers rather than mastering a few types that they can apply to many learning situations.
Teach the Growth Mindset
Student and teacher ownership and understanding of individual student data is, in my experience, the greatest catalyst for student growth. If all stakeholders are clear and honest about where a student starts in their understanding and what the end goal is, then it is much more likely that a strategic, student-centered plan will be created that addresses the students’ individual needs. That type of planning and buy-in takes a growth mindset. Teachers create growth culture in their classrooms by celebrating growth over achievement, by scaffolding and differentiating instruction to ensure that all students experience success, and by creating a classroom in which risk taking and mistake-making are not just tolerated, but celebrated.