Strategies for Struggling Students in Your Classroom
Note: This blog was updated in June 2019
As you look around your classroom, you’ll see students progressing at all different levels. Some are achieving grade-appropriate results. A handful may be learning beyond grade level. And there are those who struggle. Where a student may be strong with mathematics concepts, she may falter with the writing process. Another student who devours books above his grade level may lose that stamina when working on a science lesson.
We’re sharing some teaching strategies for struggling students who may be falling behind in different subject areas, as well as ideas you can try to help them in reading, math, and writing.
Several Reasons Why Students Struggle
Understood.org is an excellent resource that outlines a number of learning and attention issues that you may encounter with your students.
- Executive Skills – Weak executive function impacts a child’s working memory, organization, planning, and ability to stay on task.
- Attention Disorder – Often coupled with executive function issues, this disorder affects a student’s ability to stay focused and is marked by inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.
- Dyscalculia – This is a learning issue that affects a child’s ability to make sense of numbers and math concepts or grasp the “language” of math.
- Dyslexia – Presented as difficulty in connecting letters to the sounds they make, this condition affects how students process written and oral lessons.
- Dysgraphia – This learning issue specifically affects writing. Often children have challenges with writing legibly, spelling age-appropriate words correctly, or just getting their thoughts down on paper.
- ESL – Students who speak English as a Second Language often struggle because they have the unique challenge of learning core subjects at the same time they are immersed in a new language.
How to Identify Struggling Students
Identifying struggling students can be tricky. Was a low grade the result of having a bad day? Is it this specific content they are having trouble with or the subject as a whole? Is their inattentiveness just part of immaturity or something more? But as you see patterns emerge you can start to identify students who have academic struggles.
- The gap between ability and aptitude — One sign to look for is a widening gap between what a student has the ability to do and what he is actually able to do. When obviously intelligent students don’t earn the grades that reflect this, it is a red flag.
- Trying very hard with little success — When students aren’t trying hard enough, it’s easy to diagnose. But what about the students who are trying their very best and not getting the results that their hard work deserves? This can be a sign of a larger issue.
- Straying off-track — Difficulty with multi-step directions, remembering to complete or hand-in assignments, or time management can be signs of a struggling student.
- Missing homework — Missing homework can mean a lot of things. A struggling student may forget to write down assignments or lose assignments once they’re complete. She may also be too embarrassed to hand in assignments if she feels she did a poor job.
Beyond your own observations, give students a chance to self-identify their struggles. Use exit tickets, journal entries, or other self-assessment tools at the end of your lessons. This allows students to take ownership of the fact that they need additional support. They can also bring issues to light sooner rather than later.
Help Students Struggling with Reading
As many as half of your students may be reading below grade level, whether it’s due to challenges with phonics or comprehension and retention. Enlisting the help of your school’s reading specialist can get a struggling student on track with an individualized education plan. But there are also strategies to provide struggling students with additional support in your classroom.
- Small group reading sessions will help you provide additional instruction to readers with learning issues. For younger students, this includes creating reading workshops with students of similar reading ability working through a leveled reading program.
- It’s also important to provide opportunities that allow readers of different abilities to work together. This will allow students to pick up techniques from their more advanced peers.
- Graphic novels can also provide inspiration for readers who are below grade level while keeping your entire classroom engaged in reading and conversation. The presence of shorter text blocks combined with visual clues are especially helpful to struggling students in both reading fundamentals and comprehension.
Help Students Struggling with Math
If you are working with a student with dyscalculia, you may find that he or she has a root knowledge of basic facts, learned through memorization. However, while some dyscalculia students know the answers, they don’t understand the logic behind them. This can cause challenges, especially as the math curriculum progresses.
- If you find that students are falling behind in math, you may want to rely on the gradual release model for additional support. The beginning steps give you the opportunity to explain the skills and concepts of your lesson and give students the chance to see the step-by-step process of solving a problem. Students begin to gain understanding as practice progresses, working through questions with prompting and guidance until they finally take on the work independently.
- Sometimes struggling students may not benefit from repeatedly reviewing the same types of problems and may need to go back several steps to see how concepts are dependent on each other.
- Students with attention issues may need additional help keeping themselves focused. Offer graph paper so students can ensure equations are lined up properly. Additionally, suggest using a blank sheet of paper to cover up extraneous information on a worksheet or test paper to help students stay on task.
Help Students Struggling with Writing
Some students may face challenges with writing assignments because they can’t easily organize their thoughts on paper, while others may lack the memory recall to correctly spell words they memorized for last week’s spelling test. Here are a few teaching strategies for students who struggle with writing.
- Chunking or staging writing assignments allow students to view the activity in smaller parts, making the process seem less overwhelming and more manageable.
- Guide students through step-by-step lessons, taking time to focus on each step of the writing process. Struggling students may benefit from more time spent on listing and organizing their ideas.
- Allow writing assignments to be authentic. Give students the chance to write about themselves or something that excites them. This will help children whose main challenge is simply finding a topic to write about.
- A potentially overlooked reason why students struggle with writing is hand fatigue, especially among young elementary students. This may lead to illegible handwriting and incomplete sentences. Combat hand fatigue by leading your class through simple warm-up exercises at the start of each writing session, preparing both their minds and bodies to get ready to write! A few recommended exercises include:
- Rubbing palms of hands together
- Firmly shaking hands
- Clasping hands together and stretching upwards