Challenging. Difficult. Frustrating. I’ve heard teachers use these words—and some a bit less kind—to describe students who are chronic academic underachievers and classroom management problems. All schools deal with students who seem to never engage fully with the classroom or the teacher, and special education classes and alternative academic programs are continually designed and re-designed in a quest to help them succeed. To be entirely truthful, it can be somewhat of a difficult and frustrating challenge to teach students who grow more disengaged from the classroom with each year they are—if we are lucky and determined—in attendance in our public schools. However, most experienced and thoughtful teachers would agree that the curriculum offered to at-risk students matters less than the nature of the classroom experience we provide for them. Given that these students are often at the precipice of absenting their minds—if not their bodies—from school, any successful teacher needs to focus on employing the “3 R’s” while working with our at-risk school population.
The first R is a simple one: Routine. All students do well when classroom instruction runs along a predictable path, but students who are dealing with cognitive, emotional, and physical problems that impede their academic progress need the routine even more than most. If classroom instruction is designed so that each day of the week sticks to certain activities and themes, it helps students to more easily transition into a learning mode, and this is of particular importance to those students for whom that transition when the bell rings is a major hurdle. If students have to spend too much time trying to figure out what is expected on a particular day, the chances are that the lowest achievers are going to be the first to check out of the day’s lesson and find ways to entertain themselves that will run counter to a classroom environment conducive to learning for all. How many times has a student been sent to an administrator after misbehaving in class for no reason other than they felt frustrated about being left behind by the unpredictability of that day’s instruction? Creativity is good when it comes to lesson planning, but it must also keep within a structure that will not send the most vulnerable students spinning out of orbit.
The second R—Reminders—sometimes seems less obvious. While the typical student is developing the ability to stay on task and meet deadlines with each passing school year, certain students simply do not. For a variety of reasons—chaotic home lives, undiagnosed mental or physical problems, unresolved anger, emotional fragility, or some witch’s brew of these and a host of other difficulties—too many students have a much harder time than their peers keeping focused on the lessons in front of their noses. It is not, with rare exceptions, because these students wish to be either disruptive or disengaged. The plain fact of the matter is that they are as easily distracted as puppies on the first warm day in the spring. This is where reminders delivered by a teacher who is moving purposefully around the classroom play a key role in helping at-risk students to succeed. Sometimes even a glance is more than enough to help that student refocus on their schoolwork. Of course, it is also occasionally important to remove distractions—often in the form of classmates who are likewise unfocused and looking for something or someone with which to engage—but a manner that is supportive and not the least confrontational or judgmental is critical to keeping everyone moving forward. If the teacher stops everything to have a protracted war of words with one student, it is going to unsettle every student in the room and completely destroy the focus of the most vulnerable learners in the class.
So what is the last R? It is the one that every student needs every moment of every day, but is too often denied to students who are having a problem with managing themselves in the classroom—Respect. As paradoxical as it might seem to some, our most disrespectful students are the ones who need to be handled in the most respectful manner. Not only is important for the teacher to model the behavior we expect from students, but it is also just as vital to remember that bad behavior is often a by-product of surprisingly poor self-esteem and a painful fear of humiliation. If educators fail to make sure the most troublesome—and troubled—students are treated with courtesy regardless of the circumstances at hand, we will can only expect less effort in the classroom and more problems overall.