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Working With Reluctant Learners
© Dr Kathie Nunley, 2016

I frequently receive questions from teachers and administrators asking how to deal with “reluctant learners”. We are all familiar with students who seem completely disengaged in school. They either slump across the desk in a near coma, or spend class time disrupting and disturbing their classmates. It is one of the most frustrating phenomena in schools. And sadly, a classroom full of reluctant learners has even driven some young new teachers right out of the field.

So, it’s no surprise that I’m asked frequently about how to deal with student engagement (or lack thereof).

There are two or three causes for a student to be inappropriately engaged in school. The first thing you need to rule out of course, are health issues. Serious sleep deprivation, depression and other significant mental health issues can certainly lead a student to tune-out, sleep or even act-out in a classroom. Health issues require support and assistance, outside of the realm of teacher and we’ll save for another topic.

But, outside of health issues, we find only 2 real causes for non-engagement: Power/Control issues and self-efficacy issues. Both of these are addressed and corrected for in a Layered Curriculum classroom.

One's perception of control is extremely important. Often times, a student who refuses to work in class, is simply trying to establish control boundaries. They have set up a “me vs you” playing field and they are determined to be in charge of the game. If you are familiar with Layered Curriculum, you already know that one of the big “C”s” in the model is CONTROL. Set up your classroom so that students feel very much in control of the room. What they are doing, how they are learning, pacing, assignment choice - these are all factors to give students a perception of control.

Let me remind you here, that just because you are increasing students’ control in the room, you are not accepting classrooms that our “out-of-control”. Boundaries, limits, policies, deadlines, etc are setup and maintained by the teacher. You set up the framework and let the students choose how to work within that framework. So, increase a student's perception of control and you have eliminated one of the two causes of the non-participating student.

The second most common cause of the reluctant learner has to do with self-efficacy and boredom. The student perceives the assigned task is either above or beneath their ability. Regardless of whether or not the teacher believes the student can do an assignment, if the student is not confident, they fail to try.

On the other hand, if the student perceives the assignment is of little value to them or too easy for their current skill level, they too, are unengaged. Students reporting boredom in school is on the rise. Probably brought on by the increased exposure and use of electronic media, this boredom is having a negative effect on student academic performance.

So, this takes us to another big "C" in Layered Curriculum: CHOICE. Make sure, whenever possible, students have some choice in the type of assignment, duration or sequence. By offering a variety of difficulty levels and learning modalities, you increase the possibilities for students to feel appropriately challenged and effective learners.

The bottom line here is quit fighting the students. Well-running and self-running classrooms require students to feel in control of their learning and be actively involved with the scope and direction of that learning. Off task behavior, non-participants and disruptive behaviors can all be solved with a simple shift in the perception of control and student choice.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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