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Sydney Seed

EXED 401
Ways to Serve Reluctant Learners

Every child is an individual comprised of unique experiences and characteristics that

make them who they are. As educators, it is important to recognize all of the special aspects that

encompass our students, consistently remain mindful of their needs, and do everything in our

power to reach them where they are. To do this effectively you need to know your students.

You also need to be aware of equity issues in regard to their race, social economic status, and

mental health needs. Teach your students about cultural responsiveness, be a good role model by

regularly reflecting on your own unconscious bias, and be a lifelong learner on the subject. By

meeting your students’ human needs first, they will be much more willing to learn from you.

The easiest developmental time period to change how a child behaves is early on. In the

early elementary school years, social-regulation should be taken as seriously as learning the

alphabet and basic arithmetic, because all three are the basis for academic success (Bilmes).

Children who lack the social and emotional skills to “do school” are frequently struggling

learners. Spend the time to teach them how to behave just as you would how to read. While it

can be hard to remain calm with a disruptive child, choose to meet their needs over punishment.

The only control you have is over yourself, so what accommodations can you make for a high

energy student? Add more opportunities for movement in the classroom, and give the student

physical tasks such as material distribution. It is more optimal for everyone involved to take the

time to address social-regulation issues, than to waste time with student interruptions, and to

allow them to continue to sabotage their academic futures with poor social skills.

Create a community in your classroom. People desire to belong to something, and when

they feel important they are more willing to be positively involved. To do this, have your
students create a slogan, or their own set of class rules (Bilmes). Through active participation

they are identifying themselves as belonging to a classroom community which builds

relationships, trust, and responsibility (Emdin). People who feel they are on their own are

disconnected from their peers and teachers, which makes them more likely to be reluctant

learners because they do not think anyone cares. If you do not invest the time to prove a

struggling learner otherwise, you are supporting their negative thought process, and further

escalating the problem.

Students are developing their identities in your classroom, so be aware of what messages

you are sending to them both directly and indirectly. Some teachers have the correct

motivations, but harm their students by failing to understand their perspective. Teachers will

recommend for students to take regular classes over advanced classes because they think it is

where they would be successful, but what those students hear is that you think they are not

capable. They internalize that they are not good at that subject, and in many cases become a

reluctant learner for that content for the rest of their schooling (Olson). Encourage students to

make their own decisions, and lead them to their own realizations. If they decide to make a

change, it’s because they chose what was best for them, not because you did not believe in them.

In some cases, teachers are quick to judge behavior before pausing to understand what it

is in response to. Maybe a student is falling asleep in class because they are hungry, or did not

sleep well because their heat was turned off (Jackson). When children are undernourished it is

harder for them to learn (Jensen). Do not make their lives harder with aggressive accusations

about them needing to care more, help them. Maybe a student is disruptive because you did or

said something that reminded them of a traumatic experience (Sampson-Jackson). Be more

mindful of triggers, and work hard to create a safe classroom environment. It is easy to only see
the problem in front of you, and not think about it as a reaction to something else. Get into the

habit of building relationships with your students, and actively listening to their problems. When

students know you care about them, they are more motivated to please you (Jackson). When

students are motivated to do school work, they are not reluctant learners.

Some students struggle because they are depressed, or have another mental illness that

needs to be addressed (Register & Tuell). While depression can be presented as lethargic

behavior, it can also present itself as ill-temperedness, or difficulty concentrating. Mental health

can affect students both academically, and socially, so it is important for students with mental

health disorders to get the help they need quickly so they do not fall behind developmentally and

have even more reason to be a reluctant learner. Know your students, and stay inquisitive.

Understand the weight of history and how it affects your students in the present day.

Structural racism is real, and acknowledging that families who own houses have more

advantages than families who have never owned property is important (Willoughby). Notice

whether or not one population of your students is more harshly disciplined than another. Notice

who you call on in class, and who you praise (Fiarman). Be a part of the solution, and not a part

of the problem, by acknowledging common issues, and taking steps to counteract them. It is

human nature to unconsciously favor people similar to you, so normalize this unconscious bias

by talking about it. According to Fiarman, parents of color are generally comforted by white

teachers naming bias because it demonstrates they are aware of their prejudices. Unfortunately,

some families are so accustomed to seeing their children unfairly treated in school due to their

race that they lose faith in the education system, and their perceptive children notice this and

become reluctant learners. If the parents believe you are on their side, they will be more likely to

motivate their children at home for you.

It is important for teachers to be self-aware of how they are perceived by their students,

and what limitations they have, but it is not necessary to go about this alone (Lopez). Form a

team, and work together to keep each other honest. Observe each other teach, and make

decisions collaboratively so others can point out your blind spots (Fiarman). Raise a generation

of cultural responsive people by creating a classroom environment that encourages conversations

about individual cultures, and help students become comfortable with their own identities

(Lopez). Continue to push each other, and challenge each other’s mental models, because when

we are uncomfortable we grow.

Honesty is important. Your students need to know teachers are human and make

mistakes too (Olson). When you make a mistake, be a good role model and own up to it.

Additionally, you need to teach your older students some harsh realities. While accommodations

are important in the classroom, your students need to understand that the rest of the world will

not extend the same courtesies. If they want to compete for jobs and higher education, they will

have to work hard, so instill in them the work ethic they will need to succeed (Jackson). Teach

your students the value of doing their own work to the best of their ability, and to create ways for

them to monitor their progression (Lopez). When your students have goals, they are motivated

by something. Tap into that so they stay motivated to learn, and not reluctant.

How you see your students matters, because if you perceive your students to be capable

of less than what they are, you will never push them as much as they deserve. View your

students as future experts in something, and teach them how to practice deliberately and

consistently toward their goals (Lopez). Students need to know that failing is a part of the

process, and only by practicing what they are not yet good at can they become great.
Children struggle every day for a variety of reasons. Help by noticing, caring, and

educating yourself on the issues. Some students just need hope to become motivated again

(Jensen). Give them something to be optimistic about. Inspire your students, build relationships

with them, and through trust and effort, change can be made.


Bilmes, J. (2012). Chaos in kindergarten?. Educational Leadership, 70(2), 32-35.

Emdin, C. (2017). Towards recovery and discovery in urban education: Reboot, retool, and

reclaim [Public speaking at conference].

Fiarman, Sarah. (2016). Unconscious bias: when good intentions aren’t good enough.

Educational Leadership, 74(3), 10-15.

Jackson, R. (2016). Helping black and Latino males succeed. Educational Leadership, 74(1), 38-


Jensen, E. (2013). How poverty affects classroom management. Educational Leadership, 70(8),


Lopez, I. (2017). Keeping it real and relevant: Building authentic relationships in your diverse

classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Olson, K. (2008). The wounded student. Educational Leadership, 65(6), 46-49.

Register, K. & Tuell, A. (2017) Mental health diagnosis in children vs. adulthood [Powerpoint


Sampson-Jackson, A. (2017). Understanding childhood trauma and ACEs [Public speaking at


Willoughby, B. (2013). Is my school racist?. Teaching Tolerance, 1(45).