People that have a “disability” label with their name such as ADHD for example get a bad reputation. They are seen as inattentive, hyper-active, unable to organize and make sound higher order decisions, etc. I would argue that ALL of us have some degree of inattentiveness, hyper-activity, and organizational problems in our lives. These students struggle with the act of playing school, but they have talents, passions, and yes, the ability to perform tasks that we cannot do.
Some of this in part is because of a so-called disability. If we are able to break down the barriers of the label, we could see that unlocking the superpowers in these students would give us a key to bring out the potential in all of our students! Is there a certain formula, curriculum, or kit we need to buy to help these learners? When working with students that have difficulties, we need to observe, and collaboratively work with the student to create a plan. Doing so will decrease behaviors, increase achievement, and develop social skills that are transferrable for many years to come.
The Power of Observation
We hear from student’s previous year’s teachers, parents, and service providers that the student has a litany of challenges that they need to “overcome” to be successful in school. Hardly ever in reports do we see students strengths go beyond a one or two sentence description. In order to unlock a student’s potential, we need to be an expert of the student’s strengths, interests, and ways that they learn best. There are many tools out there that help us to define student strengths, but how do we know where to start? There is a lot of research out there regarding Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In essence, there are eight different intelligences that we all possess. Some have a higher skill set in some of these intelligences than others. We can use this as a starting point to determine what are strengths and challenges of our students.
Time is a precious commodity in education, especially at the beginning of the school year. If you feel like you will not have a lot of time, you could enlist a paraprofessional to help you take some notes, or you could even spend a little bit of time before the school year starts getting to know the students you know may need more support that others. One way to get information quickly at the beginning of the year is to give a student survey. Here is a free one from TpT that is great for any grade level! This will be a great indicator of student preferences that you can follow up on. This could also be something that students fill out with the family prior to the first day of school. Teachers at the secondary level can meet and discuss these findings to determine ways in which to dig deeper into student strengths to help strategically set up their lessons for optimum student engagement and learning potential. If you are starting to see behaviors early on in the school year, it is time to be proactive and make a plan with the student to move forward.
Become More Proactive
When you have collected your observations and notes together, bring in the student to help you with the problem solving process. Students are well aware of any limitations they might have, but often times struggle to put them into words. We often see students and classify them based on their behavior symptoms, such as walking around during instruction, avoiding work, name calling, hitting, etc. We have to look past the system to the root cause of why these students are exhibiting behaviors. The reason is because the students are lacking key skills. Students inherently want to do well, but many, just like all of us, have areas that we struggle in. Some areas that students struggle with are:
- Difficulty writing down long notes
- Difficulty sustaining attention for longer periods of time
- Difficulty working with a partner
- Difficulty getting started on an assignment independently
- Difficulty coming in from recess
- Difficulty organizing materials in a timely manner
The list could go on and on, but the point is that when you look past the symptom behavior, you can see the underlying skill or difficulty that needs the attention. This is where the teaching begins rather than always being reactive. Once you note the difficulties, it begins to become more predictable when these events will occur. This makes problem solving more proactive, thus reducing the undesired behaviors you would see in the classroom.
Collaboration and Student Buy-In
In order to unlock the potential for these students, we must first invite them into the conversation and allow them to be equal partners in the problem solving process. When talking with the student, it is important to phrase the problem in terms of the difficulty you are observing, and not the behaviors that you are witnessing after the event. You might have a student with a long list of difficulties, and that’s ok! Prioritize and come up with your most pressing concern first and work from there. Let the student know about the difficulty you are observing and invite them to give feedback on the reasoning for the difficulty. For example, some students may get tired and fatigued after writing down a lot of notes. Others may not understand the directions and are embarrassed that the other students are already working, but they do not have a clue. Work together with the student to agree on what is difficult for the student and why. From there you can come up with a plan to help with their difficulties, thus reducing behaviors as well.
Crafting a Plan
Once you and the student have come to an agreement on what the difficulty is and you both have discussed your concerns on the difficulties, it is time to collaboratively make a plan in which both sides come out as winners. It is best if the student starts first with coming up with some solutions. It is ok to have some in your mind as well if they are stuck. Often times, students have a great perspective that we have not thought of before, and it is worth a try. If they see that you value their opinion, then they will have greater buy-in as well. Remember, if the plan does not address both parties concerns, then the plan will have little chance of working out in the long run. With the plan be perfect the first time? Probably not. That is when you reconvene and work with the student again to adjust the plan addressing the concerns of both the student and the teacher. The student is not only learning how to problem solve in the short term, but this skill will be transferable as they encounter issues with peers, parents, and co-workers in the future!
Check Back In
It is important after the plan is in place that you and the student come back together to revisit the current plan. If it is working, great! If it could be better, refine the plan until it is meeting everyone’s needs. The student who once had these behaviors that seemed impossible to solve is now able to use this process and learn from their difficulties. It is important to remind students during this process that we all have difficulties, but it is how we respond to the event that will affect the desired outcome that we want for our situation. I am confident through this process you will see behaviors in the classroom decrease, trust increase, and more of your students will want to you help them with their difficulties. You can do it! Have a great start to the school year, and the impact you will have on so many students this year!
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