Reaching out to struggling students
Options for parents and educators
Homeschooling’s not easy. In some ways it’s the hardest thing in the world. Having sole responsibility, not just for a person’s upbringing, but for their education as well—it’s pretty daunting. And yet you can ameliorate most problems in homeschooling with a little help from the community. The internet and the proliferation of at-home courses of study are powerful tools for any homeschooling parent looking for solutions. There are some problems, though, where the little edifice of homeschooling solutions will not be a lot of help.
One of those problems is a failing student. When a student is apparently getting all the help they need and is still struggling, it can be a painful experience for everybody involved—but it’s also a thorny conceptual problem, and you’re not going to get a lot of outside help solving it. Despite all the resources at your disposal in the homeschooling community, nobody knows your children better than you do, and if you aren’t sure what to do, other people’s opinions are not going to be much assistance.
Still, there are heuristics you can use to figure out why your child is struggling. People tend to fail in predictable ways, and if you can figure out the particulars of your student’s difficulties, you can help them improve. We’ll try to provide some advice about those particulars in this post.
Listening to your students
Students in homeschooling situations tend to struggle for one of a few reasons. Do they need structure? Do they need expert instruction in a particular subject area? Do they need to develop study skills on their own? If you can figure out exactly what’s going on, you’re golden. But the rub is figuring out the problem in the first place.
A good rule of thumb is to listen to your student. They might not understand exactly what they’re struggling with, but if you listen to them, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to figure it out together. And I don’t just mean ask them what the problem is, although that certainly helps—you can turn it into part of the curriculum itself. A member of a forum I read while I was researching this post mentioned that her kids had always had trouble sounding out words when they were learning to read. Simply working more on sounding out words didn’t work, but when she asked her kids to write lists of words they had trouble with, a pattern emerged: they were words like light, gnome, and ought. So, she thought, we’ll step back and do some work conceptualizing silent consonants—and it worked. So as a first step, always ask your kids what they’re having trouble with and go from there.
That’s a pretty simple intervention, though, and if you have a student you think might really be failing, chances are you’ve already tried something along those lines. If you’re still not having any luck, we have some basic rules of thumb for what you can try.
As a first step, always ask your kids what they’re having trouble with and go from there. Click to Tweet
Potential solutions for teachers
One thing to try is a step back to basics. Remember, assignments are just a means to an end, and one of the great things about homeschooling is that it allows you the freedom to change your curriculum whenever you need to. When I was in high school, I was terrible at math and I could never seem to remedy the fundamental problems in my understanding of the subject. It was obvious that I needed to work on the foundations of my understanding before I would really be comfortable doing calculus, but with another assignment constantly on the horizon I never had enough room to breathe. Well, homeschooling gives you that room. If you have a student whose understanding of the concepts at hand just seems to have some holes in it, you may have gotten over-reliant on your curriculum, whatever it is, and you might need to take a breather, diagnose whatever conceptual issues your student is hung up on, and focus on those for as long as it takes. It’ll pay off in the long run.
Another thing might be structure. This comes up a lot in the blogs I’ve read on the subject—a student without enough structure might be neglecting their assignments, and it might be on you to provide some of that structure. If your student seems bright and engaged but just doesn’t do the work, it might be good to implement a study hall as part of your homeschooling, when you stop teaching for a certain amount of time and let your child simply work on their assignments. This is different from simply letting school be out for the day—you should make sure they’re doing their work in a public space, under supervision, so that they don’t simply drift off. In my experience, even the most dreamy student will finish an assignment if they’re kept on track for the first few minutes of work.
(You might also want to radically reduce the amount of structure if you think your student would do better with more room to be creative. But that’s much more intuitive than the paragraph above, so I won’t belabor it here.)
If your student is struggling despite the fact that they seem to understand all the relevant concepts and be comfortable with the level of structure you’re providing, then the problem might lie with something outside the classroom. If you suspect that might be the case, I’ll return to my above point about talking to your student. There’s no substitute for good communication with your student, and that goes for personal issues as well as academic ones. In fact, if there’s one overriding heuristic I’d like you to take away from this post, it’s that. If you have a student who’s genuinely struggling, the most important thing is to let them express why. It’s easy to get so caught up in your teaching that you forget to communicate, but sooner or later it will become a classroom problem, and you should always address it before it gets to that point.