Ask Dr. Blank: What are the key ways to help encourage struggling students?

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This question touches on a key issue in education. Vast numbers of children are struggling in school. At the same time, the question implies that there is a list of actions or strategies to invoke that will ameliorate their difficulties. In my experience, in contrast to a list, there is one pre-eminent factor. It is “overcoming failure.” If this factor were dealt with effectively, many of the problems marking struggling students would be ameliorated.

So it is reasonable to ask: what is happening in this realm?  The answer unfortunately is “essentially nothing.” I have long been intrigued and frustrated by the absence of efforts in this area. Years ago, when I first began to observe classrooms, I was struck by the shame and discomfort children displayed when faced with questions they could not answer correctly. Even four year olds would put their heads down—hoping that the absence of eye contact would lead the teacher to call on some other classmate. Students, like all of us, dread “being wrong.” Yet being wrong is the feature that dominates the lives of struggling students.

Often teachers, particularly those teaching younger students, are told to never tell a child that he or she is “wrong.” Although the suggestion is based on the best of intentions, it is of little comfort to the children. They know that their answers are not meeting expectations and the knowledge destroys their self-esteem. I have frequently seen children—as young as kindergarteners– express their reaction with statements such as, “The teacher thinks I am dumb, but she doesn’t want to say that to me.”

Even as a young professional with little classroom experience, I was sure that, with a behavior this prominent, the literature would be filled with papers on actions and materials that would help children get past this paralyzing behavior. I was astounded to find that I could not locate a single paper in this area, nor a single curriculum that addressed this issue.

So I began writing about “the wrong response” and what could be done to help students past the blockages it creates. I also discussed ways to restructure curricula so as to prevent the wrong response from being generated. Many of the strategies I developed are incorporated into the Reading Kingdom programs. Nevertheless, in the design of most curricula, this area continues to be sorely, if not totally, neglected. It is assumed that once a question is posed, the right answer will be forthcoming. As a result, nothing in the curricula is provided to give teachers the guidance they need to help children get past the errors.

As but one example, consider reading. If a child fails to read a word correctly, the adult almost invariably responds with “Just sound it out.” The fact of the matter is that only a very small percentage of English words can be “sounded out.”  Furthermore, children with reading problems have well-documented difficulties in sounding out—even for the words that can be sounded out.  If one measures the outcome of this well-intentioned strategy, it is evident that in most cases, it simply results in more error. Somehow the error-laden behavior is ignored. It simply does not register with the adult so that the teacher, despite the repeated failures with the technique, keeps using it.  At the same time, the recommendations for any individual child is that he or she needs more training in “sounding out.” In other words, the curricula do not need changing. The child is the one that needs changing—even if it means months and years of continued encounters with the very material that triggers the failure.

Until the problems created by the wrong response are recognized and dealt with effectively, any actions we take to “encourage struggling students” can only have minimal effects. Error is the invisible 800 pound gorilla that suffocates any and all efforts to help the children.  If we simply open our eyes and admit the existence of this creature, the path to success is attainable. If we do not, we will keep producing generations of children for whom school is a misery.

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