Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson’s book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD 2014), shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. Connect with him on Twitter at @JeffreyBenson61.
I chatted with Jeffrey to get his thoughts on creating inclusive learning environments, supporting struggling students, and more.
Q: How can teachers become better at identifying struggling students more quickly?
Jeffrey Benson: The list of what to look for may seem endless: students who are socially isolated; students who are unable to stay out of social drama; students who almost never start their class work promptly; students who are on task and don’t finish their work; students who can’t look at you when you speak to them; students who mumble their responses; students who immediately claim it’s not their fault any time they need to take responsibility; students who take too long to come back from the bathroom; students who are flagrantly unable to control their outbursts; oh yes, and students who are not showing evidence of mastering the curriculum by failing a quiz or test.
What will help teachers sift through all the observations and data is to develop a faculty culture that encourages teachers to share their concerns all along the way—not just at the breaking point. For instance, administrators can start a faculty meeting with a pair-share topic: “Talk about a student who is doing really well, and then talk about a student who is struggling.” Administrative walk-throughs can be designated to eye students the teachers identify, so it’s not always about a teacher evaluation. Those walk-throughs can also allow administrators to identify a student whose diminishing performance may be just under the radar. Administrators can thank teachers, through a quick note or check in, for picking up on a struggling student.
Q. What are a couple of important considerations for creating an inclusive learning environment that keeps all students engaged?
JB: Here are two classic teacher moves that make a big difference: 1) Allow abundant wait time and think time so that all students have a chance to ponder their thoughts and articulate their responses. A common side effect of trauma, depression, disorganization and confusion is slow-processing, and continually being left behind in the oral commerce of class is a formula for trouble. 2) Make direct personal contact with all students so that they experience you as a caring adult they can turn to if they need help. Teachers have to robustly demonstrate their commitment to every student—and that is on top of a solid lesson plan.
Q: How can teacher teams support one another as they work with challenging students?
JB: The first thing you have to do is share what the challenging students are capable of and what they are interested in. You have to spend as much time talking about student strengths as you do their weaknesses; this helps the teachers be resilient! Often one teacher identifies an “island of competency” for the child that the rest of the team can then leverage. If one teacher makes headway, let that teacher coach another teacher and then be present with the student for a problem-solving dialogue with that teacher. This way the child can begin to see the teachers as a united front. It is common for a challenging student to be mistrustful of adults, so if one teacher can establish a relationship with the student, it can pave the way for other teachers to do the same.
Q: Are there any special techniques that are relevant when behavioral problems are the cause of academic struggles?
JB: Catch the students being good. Aim to praise the students five times as often as you correct them. If you have corrected them, praise them almost as soon as they make the effort to do the right thing—it helps build your ratio! Yes, the 5:1 ratio is a high score to aim for, but it is a more pleasant chore than dealing with a lot of acting out. Praising their efforts eventually becomes a habit—it feels way better to praise than it does to always criticize and intervene.
Q: How do you encourage teachers to “hang in” when students are enduring prolonged struggles?
JB: I encourage teachers to read my article “100 Repetitions.” We are not going to cure a challenging and struggling student with one magical intervention; the student may need to work with adults 100 times in order to be more stable. It can help for teachers to be able to say, “We may be dealing with a kid who is up to about repetition 42 right now.” Make the repetitions of teacher interventions good repetitions: never shame the child; preserve the relationship; allow the child to make a correction; affirm the child’s efforts; welcome the child back. The teacher has not failed if the child is struggling when it is a good repetition.
Q: Describe the rewarding feeling when instruction finally connects with a struggling student.
JB: There is an old saying: everyone criticizes a bad teacher, a good teacher is widely praised, and with a great teacher the children believe they have done the work themselves. We are lucky when a student who has struggled can turn to us and say thank you. More often for me, however, I feel rewarded when the class is on task and I sit in my chair, take a slow breath, perhaps sip a cup of warm tea, and watch them—just watch and listen to them, without my endless comments and interventions. To watch them be children doing the work that is appropriate for children their age is the best feeling I know.