Supports for Learners (page 5)
There are many simple strategies that teachers can utilize to increase children’s engagement in learning. The following supports were taken from literature on children at risk for failure in school (Adelman & Taylor, 1993; Espinosa, 2005; Lerner et al., 1995; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2004; McKinley, 2003; Meese, 2001; Mercer & Mercer, 2005; Raymond, 2004; Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 1995; Stormont-Spurgin, 1997; Zentall, 1993, 2005, 2006; Zentall et al., 1993).
Coming to Attention
Several strategies can be used to support gaining children’s attention to instruction, announcements, or directions during the school day. Teachers can use one of the following “attention signals”:
- Clapping a few times and have children clap back
- Singing a part of a song and have children sing the rest
- Saying the first few letters of a word and have children say the rest (“L-I-S” “T-E-N”)
- Having a class name as a cue for attention, for example “Mrs. Geneux’s second-grade tigers”
- Having an attention signal that is more visual, such as raising one hand and putting the other over the mouth
- Having a “student of the week” use the attention signal
- Turning the lights in the classroom off and on and having another signal when out of the classroom
- Playing soft music for 5 seconds
- Having a “listen” visual cue that the teacher carries at all times (so it would probably be small)
Almost every teacher has some type of attention cue. However, attention cues don’t always work. When using attention cues, it is important to teach and practice the cues the first week of school. Teachers should recognize students who listen to the cue (“I have the attention of Marcus, Lucy, Natalie, etc.”) and should practice with students who are struggling. For example, if Keisha is not coming to attention, her teacher can remind her of the cue for coming to attention and practice with her before calling the class to attention. Also, teachers should not begin to speak until every child has come to attention. Children who do not come to attention will typically start asking others partway through the instructions what the teacher has said and then more children are off-task. Teachers can also use physical proximity and stand by children who struggle to come to attention before providing the attention signal and/or have those children help with the attention signal.
To help children attend to important directions during listening tasks, teachers need to be sure to highlight the most important information and try to limit the amount of detail they provide. Other strategies teachers can use to emphasize important information include:
- Using a special visual cue to signify that what they are about to say to children is very important.
- Changing the tone of their voice or using a funny voice to highlight that something they are saying is important.
- Restating the key parts or main ideas of directions and instructions.
During independent seatwork activities, teachers need to go directly to children with attention problems and ask them to restate what they are to do first, second, and third on specific tasks. If children can’t restate these steps, then teachers can write them down and provide visual cues when needed. Such a visual cue can include a list of steps on the board and a sample problem or story starter for children to refer back to as needed. Children can also rewrite directions or draw prompts on an index card and staple this in their journal or work page or tape it to their desks. They can then be taught how to use self-instruction with these cards. This support also helps students with sustained attention problems, impulsivity, and memory problems.
Teachers and children can also work together to highlight or underline the most important information on assignments. Color can be added to highlight a specific part of the instructions that children may overlook, or to highlight math operation signs to limit impulsive errors. The importance of children understanding what to attend to during seatwork and homework assignments is critical. For homework assignments, teachers should use these supports to help children understand the “main ideas” of assignments. Ultimately, as children move out of the primary grades, they will need to use self-management strategies to prompt their attention to specific cues and to get started on assignments.
Teachers can also help children selectively attend to the daily routine and anticipate what is coming up next by having advanced organizers in the classroom. For example, a poster or dry erase board with a picture and/or a description of what children should be doing could be used for different times of the day. Steps can also be listed to direct children to what they should be doing within certain time periods.
Many of the selective attention supports also help sustain attention. Other supports for sustaining attention include providing many different activities for children to complete during an academic time. Teachers can create a list of four or five different ways students can work on their writing, reading, math, etc. For example, rather than having students write in a journal for 30 minutes, they can select from the choices a teacher has provided and choose to write for 10 minutes, interview a peer on their journal entry, select three new vocabulary words to use next time, and practice handwriting on a prepared worksheet. Children can also prioritize the order in which they want to do their work.
Teachers should always observe children to ensure that they transition smoothly from one activity to the next. When children are seated together at tables, teachers can use peers to prompt students when they get off-task. Some children may need external reinforcement for staying on task and completing assignments and, in such cases, teachers can use positive reinforcement strategies for increasing attention to tasks. Finally, Sydney Zentall (2005), an expert in the area of ADHD, recently conducted a review of research-based practices for selective and sustained attention problems.
Problems Learning Information
Attention and memory problems often co-occur as children have to first attend to information before they can learn. In addition to the supports listed in the previous sections, children who struggle to work with information long enough to learn also need appropriate supports. Mastropieri and Scruggs (2004) have underscored the importance of making information more concrete for children who struggle to learn information. Tasks are more concrete for children when they include “external memories,” such as lists of steps to follow or visual representations of the activity or steps in graphic organizers. For children who can handle the amount of content but forget or are not able to also process the steps, this support may be enough.
However, some children may need the lesson to be modified. Teachers can provide children with outlines of the main ideas of lessons and a reduced amount of content to work with at the end of a lesson. Having children work with one paragraph rather than 2 pages, or 3 spelling words rather than 10, can help them work with the content to mastery. For other children, teachers may need to modify the assignment in other ways. For example, rather than filling in blanks, students can circle one of two choices.
For children who have problems securing information from their long-term memory, teachers can help them by providing links between prior knowledge and new information. For example, a teacher can outline what children already know about a particular topic and help them understand how the new information is connected to their prior knowledge. Effective teachers secure prior knowledge and help all children make connections when learning new information. However, for some children, teachers may need to devote more time to surfacing prior knowledge and they may also need to teach or reteach some prerequisite skills.
Essentially, teachers should never assume that children possess the skills needed for any assignment. Teachers need to specifically assess children’s skills by asking them questions and observing them while completing practice opportunities. Children may have learned certain skills but they are not fluent (e.g., can answer questions in an area quickly and accurately). If fluency in one area is an expectation for the next unit or lesson, then this needs to be assessed. Additional practice may be needed to build fluency for some children. Maintaining knowledge over time and using knowledge in new settings are also challenging for many children. Additional supports for maintaining and generalizing knowledge are presented later in the chapter in the section on differentiated instruction.
Children with high levels of activity need to take more breaks and move more. One support that is appropriate for students with both attention problems and hyperactivity is to have students work on 10-minute tasks during independent seatwork and then have some activity in between tasks. For example, students can conference with their teacher regarding the three things they will be doing during their seatwork. These tasks can be written on index cards. A child can take one index card, complete the task at the child’s seat or another appropriate area in the classroom, and then walk to the teacher’s desk, turn in that card, and pick up the next card. These small activity breaks help children with activity needs, and the smaller tasks would help children with attention problems. Other supports for students with high levels of activity include the following:
- Give children classroom jobs that allow for movement, including passing out papers, collecting materials, taking notes to other teachers, and delivering the lunch count to the office. If a child is very active and also impulsive and the teacher has concerns about the child’s ability to independently walk to the office and back, then allow another (very responsible) child to go as well.
- Allow children to stand at their desk while working on projects.
- Allow children to talk more and move around the classroom more.
- During group sharing time, include a small ongoing job for a child with hyperactivity, such as passing the bear to the next child or having a microphone to introduce the next child who will be sharing.
- Allow children to have quiet toys or objects to manipulate while working and listening. These do not distract children with hyperactivity; they help them meet their activity needs so they can attend to the task at hand.
- Never take away recess from a child with activity needs. To do this is like depriving a child from having lunch. As a last resort, recess may be modified to include children walking around the gym or a track.
Teachers need to be prepared to answer the “fairness” question from parents, children, or perhaps other students. Although children are sensitive to any display of favoritism on the part of the teacher, they also need to understand that everyone is unique and some children have different needs. Watching a teacher make a choice to be supportive of another child rather than punish the child for behaviors they have little control over can be seen by children as an act of kindness on the part of the teacher. Such supports help children appreciate diversity.
Children are impulsive for different reasons (e.g., due to brain-based differences, limited experience with structured environments, or limited control over emotions). Regardless of why children act without thinking of consequences first, teachers need to teach children how to make more thoughtful choices and to provide children with substitute responses while waiting for assistance. Teachers need to be very proactive with impulsive children, especially when they are young. Once teachers have identified settings that are problematic for children, they can use precorrection to highlight appropriate behavior.
Teachers also need to help children fill their downtime by including prompts of things they can do when they complete assigned tasks and activities. During class, these options can be drawn by the children or the teacher, laminated, and taped to children’s desks. Additionally, teachers can provide visual supports for children to guide what they can do when they get stuck on an assignment.
Teachers can find an educational task that students like and need more practice doing while they wait for teacher assistance. The key educational support for children who are impulsive is to limit the amount of time they have to wait without having something else to do. Even waiting for 1 minute can be very problematic for children who are impulsive. Reviewing and acting on choices is a good activity even if children spend only 1 minute on the wait-time activity.
Teachers also need to provide supports for children who frequently interrupt the teacher. Sydney Zentall (2006) describes two supports for children with impulsive behavior. The first includes having a picture or drawing of a parking lot displayed in the classroom. When a child interrupts the teacher or wants to discuss something off the current topic, the teacher can put the idea in the parking lot to be shared at another time that day. Another strategy for interrupting in group settings is giving a child a number of objects (tokens, popsicle sticks) to represent the number of times in a given activity the child is allowed to share “ideas.”
Another problem time for children who are impulsive is recess. Children need support for coming up with alternative activities when they have to wait in line too long to play four square or tetherball. Children also need support when their play is interrupted (game ends, another person wants to play basketball with them, etc.). Teachers can review good choices with children before recess every day. For children who need a lot of support, a peer buddy can be assigned who reviews and supports good choices at recess.
Overall, the key behavioral supports for impulsivity are to proactively “get ahead” of problem behavior by reviewing expectations and to limit the amount of time children spend waiting.
Supporting work habits that are more thoughtful and organized is critical for children in primary grades. By the fourth grade, many teachers spend little time teaching organizational skills and just expect children to be organized. However, children with organization problems need more instruction in this area to be successful in school. Supports for organization are divided into supports for object organization and supports for time organization.
For children who frequently lose materials or who leave at home things to be taken to school and vice versa, developing better object organization is essential. One support for object organization involves creating in-class spaces for placement of school materials and homework. Children should be taught rules and routines for material and completed homework placement. Pictures can be used for younger children to indicate where objects should be placed in the classroom. It is also beneficial for children to turn in homework at the very beginning of the school day (so there is less time to lose it).
Teachers also need to allocate time to teach organizational skills in class. Teachers should spend time teaching the steps involved in completing and returning homework. For older primary grade children, steps can include:
- Making a note of the assignment on a homework planning sheet.
- Making a note of additional materials that are needed for the completion of the assignment at the bottom of the planning sheet (e.g., a book, a ruler, a pencil, colored pencils, etc.).
- Making a checklist of things that need to be brought back to school.
- Creating a place for parent signatures on the checklist—one for homework completion and one for checking that needed materials (including homework) are in the backpack to be returned to school. This checklist can be in an assignment folder and include the following steps:
- Needed materials in backpack.
- Family member has checked the first three:
- Take backpack to classroom.
- Turn in homework.
- Have teacher sign:
Children can also use two different colors of assignment folders—one containing work to be taken home and another to indicate work to be brought back to school. Similarly, children can have an assignment folder with index cards paper-clipped to both sides of the folder—one with a checklist of things to do at home and the other to remind the student of work that needs to be taken home. Similar types of supports for object organization, which are appropriate for children in kindergarten and first grade, include creating backpacks made of construction paper and laminated with visual prompts representing what needs to go home and what needs to be brought back to school. For example, the backpack can have a picture of a book drawn on it and a note, which indicates that a child needs to take home a book to read for homework and to give a note to the child’s family. The other side of the backpack can be a different color and include a picture of a school to indicate what children need to bring back to school. If the following day is pajama day, then a picture of pajamas could be drawn on the backpack. Teachers and children can draw on the laminated backpack together, at least at first, to make sure children understand the process and can decipher what the pictures mean. Variations of this strategy can include using stickers on sheets of paper or index cards to indicate objects that need to go home and those that need to be brought back to school the following day. These homework reminders should be in a prominent place in children’s backpacks or pinned to the outside of their backpacks.
By supporting children’s understanding of routines to support organization, teachers are laying the groundwork for helping children understand how to use more sophisticated organizational tools in the future. Too often, middle school youth with organization problems carry around their daily planners for an entire year without ever using them.
Other supports for homework include leaving homework assignments on an answering machine on a daily basis so families can call and check. Children can also have homework buddies who are assigned to call and make sure they have homework done and packed to return to school. Teachers can provide reinforcement for improvements in object organization. Teachers can also use contracts and collaborate with children to determine goals for greater organization.
As children move into the third and upper elementary grades, they have homework that is due at different times and larger projects that require planning. Children need to be taught how to plan for completing homework. In addition to planning for what to take home and to bring to school, children also need to be taught how to complete homework in a timely fashion and how to organize their time in school wisely. Teachers need to have a consistent schedule that they visually display and follow to help children understand the daily routine and times for different activities. Children can be taught to make lists of things they need to do in a time frame (hour, morning, afternoon) and cross off activities as they complete them. Children can also be allowed time for planning at the end of class (e.g., to make a list of things they need to do at home or the next day).
Similarly, older primary grade children can be allowed time at the end of class to get started on homework and then be supported in determining how long the homework will take them to complete at home. Children can assign “Times To Do” (TTD) on sticky notes and attach these to their homework assignments. For example, if a child started her math in class and completed half of the problems in 10 minutes, the child could write a TTD of 10 minutes on a sticky note and put it on her sheet. Children in the third grade may not have a clear understanding of time and fractions of assignments so teacher support will be needed in determining TTD.
Organizational supports for arranging content in clear visual displays are also beneficial for children with organizational problems. These types of graphic organizers are discussed later in this chapter. Another organizational area that is very important for children as they move through elementary grades is planning for larger projects. Teachers need to conduct task analyses of different projects and include each subtask on a planning sheet for children. Teachers can also conduct these types of analyses with older children to support their development of self-questioning strategies. Each step of the project can be listed on a planning sheet. Then children can be supported in planning for each step of the project, setting dates for completing different tasks, and listing completion dates as they complete each part of the task.
It is very important to identify children’s current knowledge in specific areas in order to determine their instructional needs. Teachers need to determine which skills are prerequisites for other skills and ensure children have mastered these skills. Curriculum standards can help teachers determine the prerequisite knowledge needed for different units.
For example, if children do not have an understanding of a mathematics concept needed for the next unit, then they need to be supported in learning this information. Some children need a little extra practice to strengthen particular skills to move forward in the curriculum. However, in other cases, they may be significantly behind their peers and need teachers to meet them where they are and provide modified assignments for them. Martin, in the case example at the beginning of this chapter, was not ready for the lesson. He needs some instruction and practice opportunities related to developing number sense. This conceptual understanding is the foundation for understanding mathematical operations (Gersten & Chard, 1999). Until he is supported in developing more sophisticated number sense, Martin will not be successful in the math curriculum. Therefore, Martin should be allowed to work on math problems that are at his level. For example, if other children are working on simple addition problems, Martin may be working on counting tangible objects (e.g., plastic cookies) and assigning quantities. In addition to determining appropriate levels for instruction, teachers must also be prepared to use research-based practices to increase children’s opportunities to learn (Baxendell, 2003; Hall, 2005; Mercer & Mercer, 2005).
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