Seven Suggestions for Kids Who Have Been Left Behind

Introduction – First Report Card of this year

The school year is approaching its first evaluation point. Parents will soon get some information about their child’s progress. For some, it will not be good news because their student has “special needs”.

Some children, often identified as “special needs” require more help to learn than others. Sadly, the remediation process for these students often ends with the diagnosis and labelling. They are left to languish and fail. Quite simply, they have been written off and left behind by teachers or schools. Standardized pre-test and post-test scores indicate that 85% of special needs students show no academic change year to year. Such lack of success often pushes parents into tutoring services or into homeschooling.

I have been helping these parents for the past 40+ years. There are solutions which are often overlooked. I have prepared some posts based on seven suggestions from the data-based educational research that have consistently worked for us at our various learning centers across North America for the past 40 years to help these children catch up quickly and easily. Check in over the next few days to take advantage of these tips.


1. Teach the Basics

Once these students start to fall behind they are on a slippery slope to nowhere. Like all students, these students need strong basic skills, especially in reading, math, spelling and writing. As their deficiencies become apparent, decisions are made to reduce or even discard academic activities and reduce the curriculum to manual tasks. Schools often believe that these “special” children need a less demanding program. In fact, these student do not need a decrease in expectations or performance standards. That is their first critical error. Don’t go there. It spells doom for a child at risk. Here’s a better approach.


2.  Use Structured Instruction

At-risk students also need better-designed instructional – ones which have clear answers and are not subject to numerous possible interpretations. Such curricula must be set out as a carefully planned series of tasks, each of which is taught until mastery. These programs do exist, but are not commonly used in schools. They resulted from a $2.5 billion, 28-year national study comparing 16 different teaching models clearly demonstrated this point. The two most structured approaches accounted for virtually all of the gains that these hundreds of thousands of children made. These methods known as Direct Instruction developed at University of Oregon and Behavior Analysis developed at Harvard University are two of the three methods we integrated into our teaching model.


3. Measure Specific Skills Daily – Become like an ICU Nurse

These children need precise performance measurement to assist them and their teachers need to know what to do next. These students are on academic life support, so we need lots of indicators of progress and problems. Frequency counts of behaviors help teachers and parents determine when to review, practice, move on or reteach. A system known as Precision Teaching developed at University of Kansas provides the measurement technology component of our model.

The Sacajewea study, another long-term research project involving many thousand elementary school students over a nine year period, used Precision Teaching as a way of measuring student performances. Results showed huge gains in reading and math across 22 states from one-minute daily measures of reading and math skills. Immediate, accurate feedback and daily practice created better learning, especially for high needs learners.


4. Set High Standards- Don’t listen to the naysayers

These children need specific measurable standards to reach. They need to learn to read a selected story aloud as quickly as they normally speak (150 to 200 words per minute). They must spell well enough to be able to write 20 words per minute. They must compute a single digit math fact per second. Not meeting these standards with the most basic skills sets them up to fail on more difficult tasks. These are some of the many academic performance standards which have been developed over 40 years with hundreds of thousands of students nation-wide in Canada and the U.S.A. With appropriate teaching and sufficient practice all but the most challenged of children can accomplish the objectives we have set for them to become fluent in a variety of skills. We have worked with almost every type of diagnosis and have been consistently successful.


5. Be Prepared to Use Many Repetitions

Special needs children require many repetitions. Some children learn concepts or operations in a few attempts, some take dozens of tries, some require hundreds of repetitions, others need literally thousands of opportunities to learn a specific task. One significant difference between special needs students and their peers is in the number of repetitions needed. Teachers unwilling to invest the necessary time and energy for repetitions, and corrections cause further failure. The encouraging news is that each future task usually requires fewer repetitions than previous ones as the child learns how to learn. Remember, if the student didn’t learn, the teacher didn’t teach.


6. Provide Immediate Feedback and Modeling

At-risk children need praise. Their efforts need encouragement, their correct answers, praise and their errors need another chance. Teachers should model the task, so that the child can see and hear exactly what to do. The teacher should then lead the child through the task doing it with the student. Finally when the student demonstrates that s/he is doing it the same way as their teacher you can let the child do it on their own. When they succeed, praise follows immediately. This model (Watch me), Lead (Do what I did), Test (You try it) sequence works wonders with all basic curriculum.


7. Have Faith in Yourself and Your Child – Anything is Possible

Challenged students need teachers who believe that such kids can learn and that they can teach them. Low expectations limit children’s horizons. Until you have mountains of evidence for every failed attempt, you cannot lower your objectives and expectations for these kids. You need more determination and better instruction for longer periods. Whether the child is in school or home-schooled, parents need close communication with the teacher. As teachers, homeschoolers have distinct advantages. They select programs, set environments, determine length and frequency of lessons, set and maintain standards, decide what and how much data to collect and manage, see progress and problems firsthand and initiate program changes. Teaching these kids is not rocket science. It is fairly easy to see their difficulties. Watching their attempts often suggests solutions. Finding alterative curriculum that actually works is sometimes the most difficult task of all. That’s why were here.

Michael Maloney is a teacher, principal and founder of private learning centres for disadvantaged children. He is the 2001 National Literacy Educator Award Winner and best-selling author of Teach Your Children Well, the Teach Your Children to Read Well series and the Teach Your Children Math Well series.

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