Helping Different Learners Succeed at School
As a former teacher, and a parent of a child with Dyslexia, I know how the beginning of the year can be exciting and overwhelming all at once. New teachers, new friends, and a new year are a fresh start. Yet all that newness can become a quick setback. I have a few simple techniques to start the year strong and establish routines that help all year (so we can avoid the Crash once the Honeymoon wears off).
In teacher-speak, the Honeymoon is the first part of the year when students are excited and eager-to-please. They try their hardest. The Honeymoon can be minutes or days (depending on the class). It is a sweet, easy time when everything seems golden.
The Honeymoon happens on the homefront, too, when kids are still excited about school. Homework is a novelty. Like in teaching, the Honeymoon at home can last a few days or weeks (or maybe minutes).
The following ideas help all children. I find them especially important for kids with processing challenges.
Break Information into Smaller Chunks: As a teacher, the first few weeks of school were exhausting. I often lost my voice because it was talk, talk, talk. Sure, I made things as interesting as possible, but really, how do you share Classroom and Playground Rules without long discussions or explanations? So many new routines and expectations and procedures! From where to sharpen pencils to how we clean the room at the end of the day, the teacher’s voice becomes the “Whaw, whaw, whaw, wa-whaw,” from a famous cartoon. This becomes especially challenging for students who take longer processing information. It’s no wonder that children feel lost in the first weeks of school. You can help by asking a child about one rule or routine a day, asking them to focus on manageable chunks of information (remember three new things to tell me in the afternoon). Expect that it will take longer to digest all the new stuff coming their way.
Unschedule, Give Lots of Downtime: All this paying attention and pretending to understand is exhausting. Many students “Fake it ’til they make it” and look around to figure out the latest direction. Children come home mentally and emotionally fatigued. They are tapped out. So finding ways to recharge them will help them go back and engage the next day. Let them have breaks with self-selected books or some screentime (if that’s your family’s choice). Give them healthy food and establish healthy bedtimes routines. Postpone that new dance class or after school activity (if possible) for a month or two. Children usually try, try, try to keep up with the class. They work extra-hard, mentally, processing all of the information coming at them all day long.
Validate Efforts: Often saying little compliments like, “I see you are working hard,” helps a child. Let them know that they don’t have to understand everything all at once. All of the kids are working hard to figure everything out. Hearing that they are not alone gives children room to grow. After all, their self esteem can take a hit when they feel adrift.
Go over Paperwork Together: The beginning of the year can mean a lot of communication coming home. As parents, we tend to skim through and take away the necessary information. We might pass along the information in quick directions to our kids. “Turn your homework in on Fridays, ok?” Instead of telling students, sit down together with the teacher’s notes (not all the emergency contact forms, but any notes about homework, classroom expectations, daily routines, etc.). Read together if possible, or take turns reading. Then discuss the details.
Use a Calendar: Visuals help children so much! Hang a calendar at eye level for your child. Mark events or due dates with different color ink. If students are old enough, they can write their own information on the calendar. If your goal is simply understanding Time and Information, though, skip having them write. Use different colors to help children see connections. If Turn In Homework is always in green pen, they associate green with homework due dates. Children can cross off days to see time is passing. You can also print a weekly calendar to post and add information if a month is too overwhelming (too much information).
Connect with the Teacher: Teachers can also be overwhelmed at the beginning of the school year. It’s important to give teachers time to learn about their students and get the class settled before you give them long, detailed reports about your child. Teachers have so much to process, too. You are a learning team supporting your child. In the beginning of the year, a short note that starts the conversation is very helpful. Something like,
“Hello, I am Stacy, Jenny’s parent, and I look forward to a great year together. We know the beginning of the year is so busy! Jenny and I are working hard here at home. We look forward to working with you at school. Please let me know if you have any ideas or observations as you see Jenny working in class. I love to pass along compliments, so please let me know when you see positive choices that I can reinforce at home.”
An invitation to work together helps a teacher build your learning team. Otherwise, teachers might wait until a behavior becomes disruptive before talking to parents. In my mind, it’s always easier to prevent a behavior instead of changing a behavior.
Ask your Child to Teach You: Instead of telling your child what will happen, such as homework is due on Friday, turn it into the green basket, ask your child, “When is homework due?” Make the sentences open-ended. A great way to learn is teaching. When students teach the guidelines and expectations, they are also understanding it themselves.
Quiz your Child Gently: After having a student teach you the details, see if you can quiz them. Make it fun/funny. Make it a game, where you wonder if you have figured out the latest information. So, “I think I get all this homework stuff. I turn in finished work to the green basket, right?” Mix up your questions with wrong information. If you phrase everything as a Yes, children tune out. “Is it due on Friday? Do you put it in the green basket?” Yes, yes, yes. Depending on the age, you can trigger attention with deliberately wrong questions. “Turn it in on Tuesday? At midnight?” Keeping it silly reinforces the correct information and helps it sink from Working Memory into Long Term Memory.
Ask your Child how you can Help: One of the most powerful questions for my girl is, “How can I help?” I want her to learn advocacy without enabling. Sometimes just seeing the challenges, recognizing them, and brainstorming solutions is overwhelming. I break the ideas into manageable chunks. “What is really, really, challenging today?” And we talk through ideas that might help. Her biggest strategy is a short note from her to her teachers in the first weeks of school. She gives them a heads-up that she may need clarification, that she gets mentally fatigued, and that she is really, really trying even if she doesn’t finish at the same pace as the class.
Focus on Solutions, not Problems: We all have problems, we all make mistakes. We will all face challenges when trying new things. If we concentrate on the problems such as, “You struggle to follow directions, make friends, keep up with classwork,” then children will notice those and live inside that story. So acknowledge the challenge, then discuss solutions. “Keeping up with classwork is tough? What can we do to help?" As a team, you and your child might sharpen pencils at home, talk to the teacher, do the easier problems first... Your child may have novel solutions that you never considered. Like, "I need to start from the bottom of the page so I don't see how much work I have left." Check in on how one strategy works (or doesn’t). Recognize that all learning is a process. And we grow and learn when we focus on our potential and opportunity over our limitations.
We need all types of learners in today’s world. We need divergent thinkers and dreamers. We need difference. So honoring children as a whole, dynamic people (who happen to need help in some areas) will help them step into the next learning adventure with confidence and curiosity. Every new adventure has challenges.
How do you help your child adapt and adjust to a new classroom? Do you have tricks that help your child?
I am always curious, and I love learning new ideas. I look forward to adding more tools to my toolbox. Together, we help our kids shine!