Save Our Students? Student in distress? How do I handle situations when students are stressed and in tears? This happened yesterday during a long distance session using Google Hangout. The student and I were comparing syllabication rules and he seemed to be uncertain about pronouncing “vanish.” He had been playfully mispronouncing a few words and was also having a struggle with some unfamiliar words. In this case, he was trying to tell me that he understood how to read the word, but I wasn’t sure he knew what rule to apply. What to do?
1. My core beliefs about children form a foundation for my responses. I have never met a student who did not want to do their best, who did not want to learn or to please. I’ve worked with struggling learners from pre-K to high school, and no matter how they might act, they are desperate to do well. Elementary students, with whom I’ve spent most of my teaching career, are typically not as well-guarded as older students by a wall of apparent disinterest or hostility, but sometimes those walls have gone up at an early age.
2. When students struggle, the first person I examine is myself. I look at my behavior, my strategies, my history with the child, my expectations, and my plans. In what ways did I contribute to the problem? What early warning signs did I miss? In this case, I have been propelling us forward at a very brisk rate. We are coming to the last third of the summer and still have much ground to cover. I’m balancing continual review and introduction of new concepts with brief brain breaks. I have not focused on how much he has learned.
3. I consider what the child is bringing to the table. He had to do a lot of writing in that lesson, which is his most difficult assignment. He seemed tired and needed a fair amount of redirection. In fact, I hadn’t spotted the misunderstanding because it was fairly similar to what he had been saying playfully just a few moments before.
What did I do yesterday? I realized we had a mini-storm which I could defuse quickly by apologizing. I told him I was so sorry I hadn’t understood what he was trying to tell me. I said I would ask him to show me his work (held up to the camera) if I was ever uncertain. I told him that we were going to do a favorite activity when this one was finished. He recovered quickly and before we disconnected, I apologized again for not understanding what he was saying. I didn’t press him to talk about it, because that behavior was atypical and he was feeling fragile.
What did I do today? After probing to see how resilient he was feeling today, I addressed the issue immediately. I did repeat that I had misunderstood what he was saying, but I also pointed out that he had made it more difficult for me to understand him. We discussed the best way to handle misunderstandings in the future and I thanked him for working so hard. He had a good session today bur did show more fatigue than usual, so I added some favorite activities to keep him going.
What will I do next? Tomorrow we talk about fatigue and anxiety. Knowing his background, I am aware that he is probably dreading the next school year, he has a good sense of what skills he still needs to master, and he is probably feeling some summer tutoring fatigue. We will review his goals and the reward system as well. To switch analogies, he needs a tune-up, oil change, and air in his tires. Again, based on past experience, I think he can continue with this pace of instruction, but we need to look at the road map to celebrate how far he has traveled this summer.