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5 Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Struggling Students

Janelle Cox

Whenever learning becomes too difficult, and students start to struggle, they will be less motivated to learn. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, these learners will likely either withdraw from classroom participation or act out. There’s no denying that struggling students face barriers to success. However, as teachers, we have the opportunity to help students learn to persevere and work through their problems by giving them the tips and tools they need to be successful.

Teaching Strategies: Simplify Concepts for Students

One of the best teaching strategies to help a struggling student is to show them how to simplify a concept. If a student is having difficulty understanding what they are reading, you can show them how to break down a word by using the “Chunking method.” Students can either clap or tap their hands for each syllable in the word, then break the words into chunks to help them better understand how to pronounce it. This method can also be used for other subjects as well. In this case, “Chunking” relates to creating a pattern that can be used again when needed. Students can connect the information to help them build a neural network that they can refer to as their knowledge grows.

Another suggestion for helping students struggling with reading is to isolate the word in the text and have students look up the meaning and hear the pronunciation of it. Once students understand the word, you can reintroduce it back into context for them.

Students who struggle in other subjects such as math can use a manipulative – a hands-on object like a cube, chip, or base of ten blocks designed so that the learner can understand mathematical concepts by handling it. Visuals also work well for helping students see difficult concepts, as well as graphic organizers, which help students organize information and understand relationships and make connections.

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Help Struggling Students Build a Growth Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset -- the understanding that abilities can be developed -- can help unlock the potential in students who struggle academically. To help students develop a growth mindset, you can share stories about individuals who have persevered. For example, you can talk about how Bill Gates failed multiple times before he succeeded, or how Albert Einstein had a learning disability, but through hard work and dedication, he overcame it. Teach students how to embrace their mistakes and to learn from their failures. Give students a sense of purpose by teaching them to create and reach specific goals they make for themselves. Lastly, praise students’ effort, not their intelligence. All of these things will help struggling students make better strides.

Discover Students’ Learning Style

All students have a unique learning style, and when you help them figure out what that is, they will shine. Students who are aware of as well as utilize their learning style perform better academically. If you know that a student is a visual learner -- learns best through seeing -- then you can have that student learn by taking notes, watching videos, or using flashcards. If you know that a student is more of a kinesthetic learner -- learns through hands-on experiences -- then you can have that student learn by taking labs, acting things out, or going on a field trip.

Show Students How Their Brain Works

Often, children who struggle in school are unaware that their brain can change. Students can learn about these possibilities by learning about brain plasticity – the brain’s unique ability to change and grow throughout a lifetime. Tell students to think of their mind like any other muscle in their body -- the more they use it, the stronger it gets. Through repeated practice and by continuously challenging their brain, they can make their brain smarter. This knowledge can help struggling students better understand their mind and how it works, so they can learn to make the most of their brain plasticity.

Use Wait Time and Think Time

In 1972 Mary Budd Rowe came up with the concept of wait-time and think-time because she found that teachers typically only gave students about 1.5 seconds to respond after being asked a question. Through her research, she discovered when teachers wait at least three seconds longer, the number of students that responded correctly as well as the number of students who volunteered to answer, increased. When dealing with struggling learners, wait in silence after you ask them a question to ensure they have the time to come up with an answer themselves.

Dealing with a struggling students can be difficult. However, taking it one day at a time, and using the tips suggested, can make it a lot easier.

What are your favorite teaching strategies for dealing with a struggling student?


Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a master’s of science in education from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, Graduateprogram.org, and Hey Teach. She was also the elementary education expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @empoweringed, on Facebook at Empowering K12 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com.