As teachers, it is our goal and responsibility to help all students in our classroom learn the content we teach. Whether you teach kindergarten, middle school music, or high school physics, you share that same goal.
Unfortunately, reaching all students and helping them learn is not as simple as presenting the material and having it magically get absorbed into their brains. Students and teachers face numerous challenges that make the task of education difficult, but not impossible. We’ve highlighted a 4 common learning challenges in the classroom and ways you can address and overcome them to help your students find success.
One of the biggest challenges teachers face is lack of student motivation. It can be very hard to help a student learn who simply doesn’t seem to care about anything you are teaching or what you have to say.
Increasing student motivation isn’t always a simple or straightforward task, but it can be done. There are many strategies that have been shared by educators and researchers that have been shown to be effective at motivating students to want to learn. And, when students are motivated to learn, they will be more likely to engage with the content you are teaching, helping them actually learn and understand the material.
One powerful way you can increase student motivation is through choice. Giving students choices related to learning, practicing, or sharing their understanding of the content you teach may help you see a drastic change in student attitude and motivation.
When students are given the opportunity to make choices, they feel like they are more in control of their learning. As the teacher, it is your job to provide them with choices that are engaging, but will still help ensure they learn and master the required content.
For example, during an elementary math lesson about place value and addition strategies, you could let students choose their preferred manipulative (hundreds charts, place value blocks, Digi-Blocks, etc.) to solve a given problem and explain their answer. During a high school English class where students need to analyze and explain the theme, character development, or another characteristic of a novel, you could give them a choice about how they share their understanding. Some students may share to write a few paragraphs, others may choose to compose a song, and others may choose to create a short comic highlighting their key learning.
In addition to providing students with choices related to their learning, there are other strategies you can use to help increase their motivation. These include:
Creating a classroom community. When students feel like they’re in a safe place where they won’t be judged or ridiculed to taking a risk or making a mistake, they’ll be more likely to try new things and work hard to succeed. Provide your students with more opportunities to collaborate and work together as a team. Build in time for some of these opportunities to center around team-building activities that will help students develop a sense of trust and community.
Setting high expectations for students. Often, when you set high expectations for your students, they will try to put in the work and effort needed to meet those expectations. Set, post, and communicate your goals and objectives with your students. This can give them a purpose for learning and help them engage with the content to demonstrate mastery.
Helping students develop a growth mindset. When students have a growth mindset, they see struggles and failures as an indication that they still have more to learn. They believe that with hard work and perseverance, they’ll be able to master new content and improve in their learning journey. Students with a fixed mindset, conversely, see their capabilities as fixed. If they don’t perform well on a task, it is because they ‘aren’t smart enough’ or ‘just can’t do it.’
Helping students develop a growth mindset is important, since we always want our students to feel like they can learn and grow. To do this, praise students for their effort. Point out when you see them spending extra time working through a problem or practicing a skill. Try to put less emphasis on saying things about how smart or talented they are, since these can lead them to feel like a failure if they struggle with a concept in the future.
Access to Technology
There are some vast differences in the technology available to different schools and school districts. Unfortunately, wealthier schools and districts often have more technology available for their students. Technology can help students access the learning content more easily. It can help bring the subject matter to life, allow them to engage in more independent or group research projects, can shift more of the learning responsibility from the teacher to the students, and so much more.
If you’re in a school without adequate technology, it is easy to feel like you and your students are at a great disadvantage. However, there are different things you can do to try to make up for the lack of technology.
First, take advantage of the technology you do have access to. Whether it is a shared computer lab for the school, a few desktop computers in your classroom, or a handful of tablets or laptops, find meaningful ways to integrate technology into your lessons whenever possible.
If, for example, you only have one or two computers in your classroom, you could have a few students create a digital project to show their understanding of a topic while other students create a more traditional, paper and pencil representation. Students could also take turns using the computer to type written notes on the lesson, or you could create a class blog where all students contribute at different times. Creating a weekly or monthly schedule to rotate which students use the computers on which days can help you ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to benefit from using the technology.
When each student has their own laptop or tablet, it can help ensure that all students are able to access and view the same information. Traditional chalkboards or overhead projectors leave students at the back of the classroom or with vision problems at a disadvantage. If you or your school don’t have the means to provide each student with their own device, consider making a smaller investment by purchasing a document camera.
Document cameras can help students see the content you are sharing much more easily. They project images and text with much better clarity than you’ll be able to achieve by writing on the chalkboard or overhead. Plus, with a document camera, you can project the resources and materials that your students have in front of them. If you are working through problems together that are on a worksheet you have, you can easily display the same worksheet and solve problems together/go over the solutions together.
Document cameras can be very useful for all grade levels and subjects. Not only will you as a teacher be able to use the document camera to make the materials you are using for instruction more accessible to students, but students can also use the camera when sharing their work or giving a presentation.
English Language Learners
Many schools receive a constant influx of students who have recently moved to the United States from another country. These students bring diversity, new perspectives, and many opportunities for all students in the school to benefit. However, since many new students speak very little English, helping them access the content and succeed isn’t always easy or straightforward. There are a few things you can do to help the English language learners in your classroom feel welcome, comfortable, and ready to learn.
First, offer a welcoming and engaging environment. Make your new students feel like you are genuinely glad they are in your class. Work to develop that trusting relationship that is essential in helping all students learn. When students trust you, they will be more wiling to take risks, which will be essential when learning a new language. Try to incorporate more opportunities for team building in your classroom as well, so the English language learners can develop relationships with their peers as well.
Next, try to remain calm and don’t let the students see that you’re frustrated with their lack of understanding or abilities related to the English language. Remember, as frustrating as it feels for you, your English language learners are having a more difficult time. They have just been placed in an unfamiliar environment where everyone is speaking a language they hardly understand. Students can easily get turned off or further discouraged if they feel like they’re upsetting you. Do your best to remain patient and try to meet the students where they are ready.
You will also want to help the students gain comfort speaking in class. Calling on a student who doesn’t know much English to answer a question or share in front of the whole class can be quite intimidating. Rather, try to offer these students the opportunity to share in smaller groups, both with and without you present. This will help them build their confidence, while still practicing their language skills. You can change up the people who are in their group every so often to help students gain comfort with all the members of your classroom community.
Finally, remember that just because your new students aren’t able to clearly articulate their thinking and show their learning that it doesn’t mean they aren’t learning and making new connections. It will take some time for their English language skills to catch up with what they understand.
To help your English language learners increase their vocabulary and language skills, frontload some of the content-specific vocabulary related to a lesson you’ll be teaching. Before diving into the content, try showing students pictures (or real-life examples) of items, using gestures or role-playing, or telling the students the Spanish words and having them repeat them in English.
Students with Behavioral or Emotional Disorders
Students with behavioral or emotional disorders can have a big impact on the learning that occurs in the classroom. Sometimes these disorders not only make it difficult to teach the student with the disorder, but can impact your ability to teach the other students in your class as well. Students with behavioral or emotional problems can pull your attention away from the other students in your room or interrupt instruction.
Finding strategies to help these students learn and creating a classroom environment where all students can focus on instruction is important, but not always easy. Try some of the tips below to help meet the needs of all learners in your classroom.
Work to build trust with your students. They need to see and feel that you are there for them, regardless of the poor choices they may make. If one of your students has a particularly challenging day, set aside some time at the end of the day or beginning of the next day to talk to them. Share that you understand they had a rough time doing xyz, but that you are here for them and that it is a new day. They need to see that you have not given up on them and want to see them succeed.
Students can also benefit from feeling like they have more control over their classroom environment and learning. Set up a safe space in the classroom where students can go when they feel like they need a break from instruction. This is sometimes referred to as a calm down corner or mindfulness corner.
When designing your calm down corner, choose a space where students can get a little privacy away from the rest of the class. You’ll want to add a chair, and possibly a small desk, to provide students with a comfortable space to sit. Next, add a few posters or signs about regulating emotions, calming down, or ways students can use the space to help them get their emotions back under control. Place a few fidget toys or other materials designed to calm students down and get them ready to rejoin the class. You can also create a reflection sheet for students to complete to help them identify the way they are feeling and what triggered their emotions.
It is important to spend a little time teaching your children about your calm down corner, what its purpose is (and isn’t), and how it should be used. In the beginning of the year, take time to introduce the space and model what students should do if they visit it. Throughout the year, take some time to review how to use the calm down corner and have students share their thoughts on using it.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Teaching is one of the most challenging professions. We are constantly needed to make changes and adaptations to our instruction and teaching styles to meet the needs of our students. Picking a few strategies shared above to help you overcome some of the specific learning challenges you or your students are facing can have a dramatic impact on student performance and success.