A Fresh Look at Teaching Children With Learning Challenges

A decade ago when I was in graduate school, I could hardly contain my excitement when the time came for taking remedial reading courses. I just couldn’t wait to find the answers to questions that had plagued me about why seemingly bright children struggled to learn to read. Imagine my chagrin when I found that the class was preparing me to test, detect learning differences, track reading rates, classify text as to reading level, in short to do everything but successfully teach reading to a non-reader.

Over the past ten years, I have learned about a whole array of classifications for disabilities. There are so many! The impression one could get is that children are becoming more and more broken, and we are developing more and more detailed labels for describing them. What I have not seen, however, is more and more evolved solutions to accompany this highly classified collection of labels. The solutions are what have always interested me!

If we continue to scrutinize the child instead of the educational system, we are essentially pitting thousands of children against one educational system. We have one specific educational approach with small variations here and there but also thousands upon thousands of unique children. Which are we going to scrutinize? The children or the method? Which are we going to measure against the other? Imagine taking your five children to shop for clothes. You walk into Kid’s Clothes dragging your children after you. Kid’s Clothes is very organized and research-based to give you the best shopping experience. The store has a long rack of boys’ shirts, another of boys’ pants, a long rack of girls’ dresses, etc. So you take your girls to their area and the boys to theirs. Within a few hours all of you are distressed and upset. You have only one child that fits into the clothes! Oh no! The other four children are all wrong! This illustrates the concept of seeing children as incorrect instead of re-evaluating at the teaching methods when children do not learn.

When we focus on the child and label him using a term that sounds absolute and professional, the child will be encouraged to become that even more! One day that is branded on my memory is a day in which I was subbing for a fourth grade teacher. I entered the room and was accosted by a slender, very articulate boy, who announced assertively that he had ADHD and could not control himself. And he spent the rest of the day proving it. He informed me, very articulately, every few moments what he could not help doing. He was living up so perfectly to what his diagnosis said he was.

The more we focus on the imagined problem with the child, the less effective we will be as teachers. When I was a little girl trying to learn to ride a bike, there were two big things I wanted to not hit as I wobbled across the yard. One was our concrete block house, and the other one was a particularly thorny orange tree. The more I wanted to avoid hitting those obstacles, the more I looked at them, and guess what? The more unerringly my bike steered right into them! If I am teaching my child and in my mind I am focused on her inability to memorize spelling words, my disbelief in her will be transmitted to her and my focus on the problem will become her focus on the problem as well. Nothing good will come of this.

Every adult I have taken the time to talk to can describe what tasks they are gifted at, what they enjoy doing, and how they remember things. Some of us know well that we cannot hear verbal directions and recall them for more than a nano-second, so we look at and rely on maps for navigation. Other people can solve really complex math problems in their heads. Why is it then, that we assume every single child should be able to memorize strings of letters (spelling), memorize math facts, or memorize and apply phonics rules? Does this make sense? I don’t think it does. We are all wonderfully designed to perform exactly what we should in our lifetimes. And none of us should compare ourselves to another person. We don’t tend to as adults, but the minute a child comes along, we often try every way possible to get him to fit into a narrow educational mold.

Let’s take a look at our traditional educational system. It does not work for many children. So the question is, do we change it or try to change our child to make them fit into the system?

Rules of thumb for teaching all children, but especially children with learning challenges:

Get rid of the unnecessary clutter. For instance, in teaching reading, you do not have to learn all the names of the letters first, nor do you have to memorize their related sounds, nor be able to put the letters in ABC order, etc. Those traditional steps, including sounding out and memorizing blends, are so familiar that we feel if we do not teach them, we will fail our children. The best way to teach a child to read is to get to the point immediately! I can attest to the amount of clutter that exists in our teaching day. One really foreign concept to many adults is the fact that some children learn whole words more readily than they do the little pieces of words.

Learn to distinguish between effective lessons and busy work. Much of what filled our day in the classroom when I was teaching was busy work with minimal gains made by the child. You can tell which activities fall into this category because the child is simply not enjoying it and is not engaged. For instance, copying is usually a waste of time for most children. It will make the child’s hand tired and put the brain to sleep. Try it yourself. Put on a TV program that interests you a whole lot, and then sit down and copy a whole page out of the dictionary while you watch the program. Did you get much out of the copying? Any activity that is effective, useful and engages the child is going to be one in which he has to figure something out, invent something, or has to think! If he is engaged, he is learning!

Use images everywhere you can. Images are magical for many, many children who do not memorize well. Try it for yourself. Ask someone to do you a favor. Have them drive to a street not too far from you and snap a picture of something distinctive such as an interesting house, or a weird building, or anything that is out of the ordinary. Then have them come back to you and first describe verbally, orally, what they saw. When they have finished, have them show you the picture they took of that very interesting object. Which is most effective at getting across the reality of the object? The oral description or the photo?

Use a body motion to help remember. When I have trouble remembering a phone number (which is always), I know to pretend to dial it on a key pad. While I am doing that, I notice the shape of what I dialed and I also am storing up that visual pattern in the muscles of my body. Every child who is good with some physical activity is going to benefit from a physical movement to accompany learning. And I do not just mean bouncing; I mean a movement that reflects what they are learning. When counting by two’s, for instance, have the children march in a line but lean over heavily on each even number. Their bodies will remember the even numbers as they hear their mouths say the even numbers at the same time.

Relate the learning to a real-life experience. When learning to tell time or count money, do it throughout the day, not at a desk with pencil and paper. Measurement is best learned when the child is creating something very interesting to her.

Have the child figure out some things for himself. With any science lesson, the more hands-on and real the lessons, the better. Anything a child can just cut out and paste is marginal at best. It might just be a time filler. Anything a child investigates and then makes or writes or puts into action (that he has to figure out) is going to be valuable.

Find patterns and likenesses in all you teach because that is what the brain loves. There is beauty in patterns, and nature is full of them. Music is made of patterns; math is as well. I have seen a child come to life when she saw the patterns in learning. Unrelated details are hard to do anything with.

Don’t just tell; show. I would love to have a nickel for every time I’ve heard a teacher complain: I already told you that more than once. Hmmm. Could it be that telling is not effective? Show them. Show them examples; show them how you do it (modeling); show them what a good outcome is. Remember: Don’t tell me… show me!

Keep lessons as short as you can. Stop the minute the child is tired or restless. Of course I don’t mean ten minutes into the school day! I mean, however, that when your children begin to wiggle or be restless, check the activity or lesson you are doing for interest level. If you can inject some mystery into it, some novelty, by all means do it! But if you follow step one and get rid of the clutter and stick to the meat and potatoes of school work, you might just find that your daily work, the meaningful part, can be accomplished in a couple of hours in the day or three.

Do not, please do not, keep on doing what you see does not work. What the child needs is not more drill, but a radically different approach. Remember, we are going to abandon the notion that the child is broken! We need to change what we are doing when the child at first doesn’t respond.

Getting The Most Out Of Professional Development – Suggestions For The Teacher

Education is in constant flux. Gone are the days when a teacher learnt all that is needed to know at teachers’ college. Teachers need to be constantly upgrading their qualifications or enhancing their teaching skills by attending regular professional development. This was made plain to me when I became a Head of Mathematics. One of my most important duties was the professional development of my staff. However, that also meant that I had to embark on constant professional development before I could fulfill my responsibility to develop my staff.

Often, the professional development I attended was mandated by the educational authority and I had to pass it down the line. I had to develop a strategy to get the most out of these opportunities so that I could give good feedback to my staff.

Here is how I went about it. Obviously, I would need to take notes in the workshop but they needed to be focused on how I needed to pass the information on. Therefore, I would divide my note pad down the middle. The left side was headed “New Information” and the right side “What Action Shall I Take”. On the left hand side, I would note the new idea/instruction in blue. On the right hand side, I would write in red what action I needed to take. The next day I would develop an action plan. That would include what I needed to do to get the ideas across to my staff. One essential part of this action plan was to write a report that went to all. Often, it led to my giving the staff a short workshop.

This eventually led me to present professional development workshops to teachers from other schools. In those workshops, I challenged my audience to leave the workshop with an action plan. In fact, in the workshop booklet, I included a model action plan Proforma as an example of how I went about making the most, personally, out of professional development.

One thing I always did was to decide on an idea that I would implement in my classes the next day. I knew that I needed to ‘strike while the iron is hot’ or the professional development would just become a ‘nice’ day away from my classes.

Below is an example of the action plan I put in my workshop booklets. The action plan was in the form of a series of questions teachers would ask themselves.


What new Teaching Strategies can I trial?

What can I Trial In My Classroom now?

What Resources should I buy?

What Resources should I trial?

What New Skills do I need?

How can I get these New Skills?

What further Inservice do I need?

How do I get it?

What New Assessment ideals might I trial or use?

Are there any Other Useful Ideas I should consider?

Homework: Whose Problem Is This?

Parents who are stressed and exhausted by helping with homework feel that way because they make their child’s homework their problem rather than their child’s. And it needn’t be that way!

Here are three things that you can stop doing right now so that the stress and exhaustion disappears.

Stop trying to ‘teach’ your child

You know the situation. Your child can’t do the work that has been set so you try to show him or her how to do it. You end up ‘teaching’ your child – and this is so not your job!

No wonder you get stressed.

Stop doing your child’s work.

Many parents are so hurried and anxious that they do their child’s homework for them! Parents have stayed up late to get a child’s project finished for a school deadline!

Whose homework is this?

Stop nagging your child to do their homework.

How many times do you remind your child that she has homework to do? Does she resent your nagging? I bet she does!

You get stressed over something that is not your problem.

So what can you do to avoid the stress and to stop your child’s homework being your problem.

* If you try to teach your child how to do the work chances are that you are not using the same method as the teacher – result – confusion.

Tell the teacher.

If your child is struggling to do his homework his teacher needs to know. For one reason or another your child has not learned how to do the work. It is his teacher’s responsibility to make sure that he knows what to do. A good teacher will welcome being told that your child has a problem and will either reteach the lesson or give you some tips about how to help your child.

* If you are doing your child’s work for him you are stopping your child learning.

Homework is set so that your child practices or demonstrates what he has learned. If you do your child’s homework the teacher is going to know how well YOU can do the work, not your child.

Now, if you want to show how clever you are go ahead – just don’t expect your child to get anything out of it!

Discover why your child does not get their work finished. Is it too hard? Too boring? Takes too long? Once you know the reason you can do something about it.

* If you nag your child to get homework done you are stopping your child taking responsibility for their own learning, as well as risking your relationship with your child.

Stop nagging!

The more you nag the more you take away your child’s sense of responsibility about their work. Your child stops thinking about when he has to do the work because he knows that you will remind him – again, and again, and again!

Set up reasonable expectations around doing homework such as homework will be done straight after dinner or before anyone watches TV. Make sure that your child agrees to them, then expect your child to take the responsibility of keeping to them.

Remember, homework is not your problem. You have other things to worry about and to do. If you spend your time worrying about your child’s homework these will not get done and your child will miss the learning opportunities only you can give him.

Homework is for your child to do – not you! Stop making it your problem and start doing things that will really make a difference to your child’s school success.

If you want tips on how to do this sign up for my free CD and you will also get my newsletter full of tips on the right way to help your child succeed in school.

How to Avoid Verbal Mannerisms When Teaching

Have you ever been sitting in class or a lecture or just listening to someone speaking using the same word or phrase over and over again, (e.g. ‘ah’; ‘OK’) so that it becomes distracting? Yes, you have!

All of us have words or phrases that we are prone to use often. One such phrase might be, ‘That’s OK’. It is fine to use these phrases often if they are used in the right context. However, it is not ‘okay’ to use them as ‘space fillers’ as you think of what you want to say next. A pause in your speaking is better, as it can create a sense of anticipation in your students about what comes next and gives you a chance to get your thoughts together for what you want to say. Let your eyes roam around the class to make sure the class is ready for what comes next. This is a better ‘space filler’.

As a teacher, one of your prime responsibilities is to be as perfect an example as possible of the correct use of language.

Using words like ‘okay’ often, can show a lack of vocabulary. On the other hand, it might be simply a nervous mannerism created by a lack of confidence in what you are doing or in your content knowledge or in the teaching approach you are using. You need to remember that, as a class teacher, you will always know more than most, if not all, of your students. Therefore, there is no need to be lacking in confidence or to be nervous.

On a more positive note, the use of these words may just be an automatic, involuntary ‘space filler’ designed to give you time to think.

So what do you do to prevent them becoming a distraction to your students?

Firstly, you need to know that they are occurring. Hopefully, your teacher supervisor during your teaching practice will point this out to you and help you eliminate them before you begin your career. Once you have started your career and you suspect you have verbal mannerisms, ask your teaching mentor to observe a lesson to check the situation out.

Once you know you have these mannerisms, there are ways to avoid them.

1. Learn to pause at the time instead of saying the word or phrase. Then, because your conscious and subconscious mind works many times faster than you can speak, the pause in what you are saying will, in fact, be much shorter than you think. Then, decide on what you need to say and say it.

2. This is a good time to look around the class/audience to see how they are reacting to what you are saying. Use this time to think.

3. Make a list of your verbal mannerisms and create a list of words or phrases that you can use to replace the ‘offending’ ones. Here are two examples:

OK, okay:

“Any questions? Are you happy with that? Do you have any problems with this? Do you agree? Do you understand? Do you need any more information before we continue? Now. Next. Alright, let us continue”.


“Correct. That’s correct. That’s right. That’s the correct answer. That’s the right answer. That’s it. Well done. Who agrees with that answer? Yes; Tom, do you get that answer?”

These are, obviously, simple examples. Even so, it is important to make sure the alternative word or phrase fits well into the context you are using. Otherwise, it, too, will become a distraction.

If you have a sense of pride in how well you use language, you will want to eliminate these verbal mannerisms and enlarge your operating vocabulary.

Six Assessments to Check for Understanding

When teaching, it is imperative that teachers are consistently and constantly checking students’ understanding of the content before, during and after class. While we are all familiar with the typical Do Now, Warm Up and Exit Ticket checks for understanding, how can we as teachers ensure that our students grasp the content, while still making the activity fun and engaging? Below is a list of six “quick assessments” that teachers can incorporate into their routine in order to check their students’ understanding, while also identifying difficulties that students might have. The timeframe for the assessments ranges from 1 minute to 20+ minutes depending on how long the teacher wants to spend on the activity.

One to Five

This assessment is very quick and provides teachers with an immediate gauge of how well the students understand the material. After a concept is taught, the teacher can simply ask the students “how well do you understand?” Students will then hold up their fingers 1 (not at all) to 5 (perfect) in order to let the teacher know which students are still struggling. If students are shy and do not want to hold up their fingers, the teacher can place cards on the students’ desk, so the student can simply turn to the card with the appropriate number, out of sight of the other students.

Question Envelope

During class, the teacher will pass around an envelope, and if a student has a question, they can write the question on a question on a note card and put it in the envelope. At the end of the period, the teacher will read and answer the questions in order to clarify any confusion or misconceptions that the students might have.

Question Partner

This is an engaging assessment that can either range from 5 minutes to 20+ minutes depending on how in depth you would like to go. For this activity, students will have a list of questions (that were created by either themselves or the teacher) that they will ask their partner. For this activity to be completed successfully, all students should have a graphic organizer where they write the question and answers provided to them by their partner. By having the students write the answers, they are not only having the material reinforced, but they are also being held accountable for their work.

One-Minute Response

One-minute Response provides quick feedback and a check for understanding about a certain topic to the teacher. The teacher will pose a question to the class, and the class will have a certain amount of time (1-5 minutes) in order to write their response. This activity can be completed at the end of a lesson for a longer period of time (5 minutes), or can be given throughout the lesson in shorter increments (1-2 minutes) to check for understanding.

White Board

This activity is very fun and engaging, and usually well received by the students. The activity can be completed independently or in pairs; group work is not recommended for this activity because it is important that all students’ voices are heard. The teacher will pose a question to the students, and they will have to write their response on a white board. The teacher can either then call on students to explain their answer, or if the students have different answers, they can engage in a discussion on who is correct. If you do not have white boards available, an easy way to make them is by laminating sheets of paper.

Parking Lot

Similar to the Question Envelope, this strategy allows teachers to gather students’ questions in a single location. The teacher should designate a certain part of the room or poster paper to become the “parking lot,” where questions are written. Students can either write their questions on sticky notes and attach them to the parking lot, or can write them directly onto the piece of paper. Parking Lot questions do not have to relate specifically to the content of the day, but can address the essential question or theme of the unit. The teacher can then review the parking lot questions with the class on a daily or weekly basis.