In every class there are students who struggle to learn. Over time, some will begin to believe that even if they try, they will be unable to achieve. As a result, they may give up easily, be less willing to have a go, avoid trying new things, or asking for help, further reinforcing their perception of themselves as a ‘failure’ ‘stupid’ or ‘not good at school’. They suffer from what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’.
The reasons children struggle to learn in the classroom are many and varied. They may have a learning disability or other condition, or may experience anxiety or negative circumstances at school or in their home lives, or they may not feel connected to the school or teacher. Regardless of cause of their difficulty, these children tend to believe that no matter what they do, they cannot change their results, grouping or ability to learn.
You can use the following ideas with the whole class to help build students’ belief in their own ability to learn.
- Talk about ‘problems’ as challenges that can be solved. Teach the class to break a problem into small components, and then brainstorm solutions for each part. Frequently model and demonstrate how to make a step-by-step action plan to address the challenge presented by the problem. Illustrations can help, such as drawing a ladder with the goal at the top, and the steps needed to reach the goal. As they complete each step, the child can move an image of themselves towards their goal. This drives children to look at problems and think, ‘What can I do to work this out’, rather than stopping at ‘It’s all too hard.’
- Emphasise and celebrate effort, not just the end result. Speak frequently about how most things are achieved through hard work and persistence. This includes making and, most importantly learning from mistakes. Think of ways you can reward the effort applied to the task, rather than just the end results. For example, a university applied both a ‘knowledge grade’ (content knowledge) and an ‘effort grade’ to all work tasks. They found that when the students tried hard and received a high ‘effort grade’, their ‘knowledge grades’ improved.
- Talk about coping. These children typically experience frustration on a daily However recent research with children diagnosed with dyslexia has found that the way students cope with academic difficulties is more predictive of their future success in life than the limitations of their disability. This is a powerful message to share with your students, especially those who struggle with literacy and learning. These students cannot change the fact that they have a learning disability, a traumatic home life, or another issue that makes learning difficult for them, but they can change how they cope with it. In doing so they develop the tools to assist them to succeed.
Coping strategies can be taught. Encourage your class to use productive, help-seeking coping strategies that aim to solve the problem, rather than unproductive strategies that avoid or ignore the issue. Examples of good, evidence-based programs include Developing Everyday Coping Skills In The Early Years: Proactive Strategies For Supporting Social And Emotional Development, and The Best of Coping: Developing Coping Skills for Adolescents or BounceBack.
- Build on the child’s character strengths. Strengths of character are not talents; rather they are innate qualities that make a person who they are. When we use our strengths we feel energised and engaged. It is more beneficial to improving self-belief to focus on what is good about the person, rather than the things they are good at. Focusing on strengths empowers all students, especially those used to focusing on their weaknesses. Help students identify their strengths and the ways they can be used to help them achieve in the classroom. Strength cards or the VIA Youth survey for children can assist with the identification of strengths. For classroom activities, see Hands on Scotland, or VIA.
For more information on Working with children with learning disabilities, Working with children with dyslexia, Working with children who worry excessively and Working with children who display perfectionistic behaviour, see excerpts of these ebooklets in the Free Resources section or full text versions in the Member’s Area.
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by Zoe Ganim and Murray Evely