Students who struggle to reach academic goals set by teachers and school districts typically do not receive As on their report cards, stickers on their work, or stars on their charts. They are not invited to participate in honors assemblies, nor do they earn special ribbons or certificates to celebrate their academic successes. Homework is often a source of stress for them, as is remaining focused in classes where they cannot keep pace with their peers.
Even though these students may never achieve the same level of academic success as their peers, it’s important that we equally acknowledge and celebrate their hard work and achievements.
As Christian educators, we can foster a positive educational experience for our struggling students by implementing the following strategies:
Recognition of non-academic success. Recognizing students' successes in non-academic areas can inspire and encourage students who struggle. One teacher I know has a special board for “attitude champions” that includes cut-out trophies with student names and brief descriptions recognizing students for non-academic achievements like helping in the classroom without being asked or attending to a student who was hurt on the playground. She also asks other staff members to let her know when they catch one of her students setting a good example so she can continue adding names to her attitude champion board. This practice allows her students, even those struggling academically, the opportunity to see their names being celebrated.
Special tokens. Even the most seemingly insignificant items can help boost our students’ self-esteem. I often give out “lucky pencils” on which I have written short, encouraging messages such as “I am a hard worker” or “I believe in my abilities” or “I will complete this task.” Because my students know I believe in them and wrote these messages especially for them, these special pencils serve as powerful motivators. Other tokens such as smooth “worry stones” serve as a reminder that each student is special to their teacher while also functioning as fidget gadgets for students who struggle with anxiety, emotional regulation, and focus.
Organization support. Students who are struggling academically may not naturally acquire organizational skills, so they may need extra instruction and guidance as they try to implement organization strategies. I have found color-coding subjects—blue folders and notebooks for science, green for math, etc—to be a successful organizational strategy. Homework assignments for each can even be written in the color assigned to each subject. I continue to check-in with my students and provide additional strategies if needed in order to support their continued growth.
Tactile resources. Items students can physically touch, hold, and write on (such as agendas or checklists) are often more effective than online tools and resources for students who are struggling in school. The addition of colored post-it notes on pages that need to be addressed by the students can help as well. It can be easy for struggling students to glide past words on a screen, but when the students can see and touch their reminders, it can boost their ability to focus on them.
Mapping. I have found that breaking down reading assignments into smaller pieces can benefit students of all ages in every subject area. For example, I have my struggling high school students read one paragraph of an assigned piece at a time (or one page if it is a longer assignment). They then write one or two words to help them remember what they just read. When the reading is completed, the margin words function as a map, helping students identify where they need to look to answer comprehension questions. Plus, if they lose focus on a paragraph or page, the entire assignment is not lost to them—they only need to reread the short passage they missed.
These strategies may seem simple, but for our struggling students, they can make all the difference. They communicate to our students that we truly see them and care for them. Many of us became teachers because we loved our educational experiences, and we felt called to foster positive educational experiences for our students. Let’s make our schools a place where all students feel valued and capable of achieving success, especially those students who struggle.
Anne Davidson Kusmer is a former high school English teacher and guidance counselor who currently tutors for college entrance exams and coaches writing. Married to Jim for 30 years, she recently became an empty nester, spending much of her time with her Australian Shepherd, LouLou.
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