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How Teachers Can Treat Struggling Learners as Gifts

Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C.

I have consulted with many teachers about the challenges that face children with learning disabilities. Teachers understand that struggling learners have more opportunities to fail in the classroom than in their own living rooms. Subsequently, teachers must pay special attention when introducing students to such a potentially treacherous environment that can feel like a walk in the jungle. At every turn, danger lurks, ready to prey upon their weaknesses.

Students face many landmines in the classroom environment—comparisons among classmates, examinations that suggest they don't measure up, and ridicule and teasing for mistakes. The No Child Left Behind legislation has made students who perform poorly more vulnerable than ever to the pressures of the school environment. Teachers are feeling increasingly uneasy due to the "assessment craze" resulting in classroom-to-classroom and school-to-school comparisons. Teachers teach under greater scrutiny by some administrators who seek signs of low scores that supposedly reflect a teacher's ineptitudes and inabilities. It is no wonder that teachers tend to see students as projects. The lack of successes of their students is often viewed by others as the result of the lack of efforts by the teacher.

The following strategies are designed to help teachers treat struggling learners as gifts before they tackle the instructional steps necessary to help learners realize their hopes and move toward their goals.

Strategy #1: Importance of Teacher Self-Acceptance

Teachers faced with struggling learners are often teachers who face self-doubt. Struggling learners struggle. They struggle in receiving, storing, recalling, and/or expressing information. Teachers often find the knowledge and skills required to teach struggling learners successfully don't always measure up.

During the past year, my wife and I helped care for my father-in-law at our home while he slowly died of cancer. I marveled at how the physicians who treated him appeared impressively confident regardless of his lack of progress and eventual death. Many teachers have mindsets that differ from those of the physicians. Teachers often see students' poor performances as symptoms of their own ineffectiveness. In the minds of the teachers, the lack of students' achievements is the result of the lack of teacher knowledge and skills. They are prone to ignore the more critical message that confidence in competence can occur regardless of students' performances. Just as physicians have clients who don't always get well, teachers have students who don't always excel. It is imperative that teachers be less susceptible to this harsh type of self-evaluation and be more secure in their beliefs in their competence.

Teachers who translate students' lack of performance to their own lack of competence are more inclined to treat students like they don't measure up and need fixing. Teachers who demonstrate a mindset of confidence in their competence regardless of students' performances are more inclined to accept and affirm students who make more mistakes, fall behind, lose assignments, and/or make poor grades. Those latter self-affirmations contribute greatly to teachers' propensities to affirm students desperate for such affirmation.

Strategy #2: Empathy—Seeing Life through the Eyes of a Struggling Learner

In his book, The Self-Esteem Teacher, Robert Brooks (2004) suggests that empathy is the road to understanding. Brooks encourages teachers to travel this road to understanding by experiencing a typical day through the eyes of a struggling learner. There is little question that teachers can achieve better understanding of struggling learners by placing themselves in the thoughts and feelings of those learners. Teachers need to know the thoughts and feelings students have who labor over words when reading in small group, struggle with comprehension when asked to recall answers to questions, write poorly for others to see, and make mistakes publicly at the marker-board.

Richard Lavoie (1989) also challenges teachers to place themselves in the shoes of children who struggle. His classic videotape entitled How Difficult Can This Be? challenge teachers to understand how struggling learners think and feel when they process information differently.

Teachers who empathize with students who struggle see beyond the deficits and see qualities that suggest the students are more than projects. This empathic thinking personalizes or humanizes relationships that help teachers appreciate struggling learners. Students learn that teachers do not accept or affirm them only when they perform, if they perform, or because they perform. Students learn their very presence prompts the acceptance and affirmation with no strings attached leaving the impression, "I am worthy regardless."

Strategy #3: Let Obscurity Reign

It is not uncommon for students to find themselves in school environments that suggest, "I measure up when I am recognized and/or awarded for my accomplishments." Bret, a third-grader, who just one year earlier saw himself as an "I CAN" kid, could no longer fight back the tears when he failed to make Abbit for the third time. Abbit symbolized the A/B honor roll at his school. Severe dyslexia was a strong impediment to Bret's achievement. The award assembly song did not help, "Give me an A, Give me a B, we don't want to make Cs or Ds." Bret did not want to make Cs or Ds either. Yet, he found the prospect for making any grade higher than Cs or Ds increasingly unlikely during that school year.

The 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer (1963) admonished us to increasingly appreciate those who perform small and obscure deeds. Bret was performing small and obscure deeds certainly unworthy of any recognition at an academic achievement award assembly. Schweitzer suggested that the impact by those who perform small and obscure deeds is very important and should not be minimized.

Students who struggle should not be cast aside or alienated from any opportunity that suggests, "We are excited about you and the lack of a portfolio that includes Abbitt awards does not deter us from such excitement." Positive feelings must be bestowed upon struggling learners by members of the teaching ranks because those feelings are vital to the process of separating mediocrity from greatness, success from failure, winning from losing, and gifts from projects. Bret needed reassurance that the Abbitt award was not the seal of approval on his value as a person. He needed to know that a seal of acceptance and appreciation awarded on his first day of school had a lifetime guarantee. Of course, such a seal tarnishes without daily affirmations.

Strategy #4: Cultivating the Sense of Capability

Struggling learners have numerous occasions to feel incapable. The pressures on teachers to ensure that students read fluently, write masterfully, and compute accurately are at an all time high. The resultant teacher anxiety leads to further pressures in the classroom. Students are expected to recall a greater and greater breadth of information about social studies, science, health, and literature. Those are formidable undertakings for struggling learners.

It is most improbable that struggling learners will see themselves as gifts when they see themselves fall short of the goal time after time. The learners desperately need teachers to find those valued opportunities for the struggling learners to feel a sense of capability regardless of present performance.

An emphasis on life-abilities is one conduit by which teachers may approach such a critical and significant undertaking. A struggling learner may not achieve an 80 percent on a math assignment, but the same student can demonstrate mastery in the area of persistence. To persist rather than to demonstrate mastery of math facts beyond their performance levels is sometimes more manageable and attainable for students who struggle. Of course, the persistence makes the mastery of the math concepts increasingly likely over time. In this case, the life-ability, persistence, gives the students that sense of capability.

Eric was in a self-contained classroom at the high school level. It was career day and many professionals were invited to the high school to discuss their respective careers. I was greeted at the door by a number of high school students including student council members, cheerleaders, and drill team members. Eric was not among the student greeters. He was standing in the cafeteria near the wall with his classmates who were preparing to march from the cafeteria to the classroom.

I was saddened since I knew Eric as the young student in our neighborhood who played with my son. I wondered what had prevented the school officials from pairing Eric with one of the student council members, cheerleaders, and/or drill team members. Absolutely nothing!

He lost a tremendous opportunity to feel that sense of capability while standing with his classmates. Eric missed out on the experience of sharing himself as a beautiful gift accepted by his classmates.

Teachers must insist on developing strategies that give struggling learners new and improved opportunities to feel accomplished. Of course, that should involve the educational successes in reading, writing, and mathematics. It should also involve demonstrations of accomplishment in persisting, attending, persevering, and the many other life-abilities. In junior high school, Mom and Dad arranged for me to take money collected from the school to the bank on a weekly basis. The bicycle ride from school to the bank and back was filled with the pleasurable thought, "Look what I can do!" It does not take much for struggling learners to feel that sense of capability, nor does it take much for teachers to organize opportunities that promote such feelings. Students more easily see the worthiness in themselves when they have experiences of sharing that worthiness by doing something for others. Teachers are in positions to assure that such worthiness is shared.


Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, there has been increasing concern that schools may leave the “whole” child behind. Increasingly, the focus in schools is on academic performance. The emphasis on academic performance is necessary but not sufficient for students with learning disabilities. Without trying to minimize such an emphasis, it is imperative that students with learning disabilities also receive experiences designed to promote social and emotional learning. Educational strategies must be developed and implemented to teach struggling learners to have the emotional strength to face their challenges and the social skills to relate effectively with adults and their peers. As Dr. Don Deshler, an internationally acclaimed educator, states in the book Bound and Determined, "Learning is much more than a cognitive undertaking. It is also an emotional, affective, and visceral experience" especially for those who struggle to learn and remember." From this foundation, teachers are critical for maximizing social and emotional learning along with academic learning. Students with learning disabilities agree, "We don't want to be left behind." If their voices were heard, they would proclaim, "Give me daily opportunities to feel capable and connected with my classmates. Give me opportunities to feel your affirmation, acceptance, and affection regardless of my present academic performance!" In so doing, fewer students with learning disabilities would be left behind and more of the students would be guaranteed safer passage to move ahead.



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Brooks, R. (2004). The Self-esteem teacher. Loveland, Ohio: Treehaus Communications, Inc

Cooper, M. (2005). Bound and Determined to Help Children with Learning Disabilities Succeed. Weston, Massachusetts: Learning Disabilities Worldwide

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Lavoie, R. (1989). Understanding learning disabilities: How difficult can this be? The F.A.T. city workshop [Motion Picture]. United States: PBS Video.

Pocok, A., Lambros, S., Karvonen, M., Test, D. T., Algozzine, B., Wood, W., et al. (2002, March) Successful strategies for promoting self-advocacy among students with LD: The lead group. Intervention in School and Clinic, 209-216.

Schweitzer, A. (1963). Out of my life and thought (p 74). New York: New American Library.

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Silver, L. B. (1998). The Misunderstood Child: Understanding and coping with your child's learning disabilities (Third edition). New York: Three Rivers Press.


Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C. is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Central Arkansas.

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