When students get stuck in traffic

Full Text

Originally posted November 20, 2013 on Scholastic EduBlog

The other day I had a typical commuter’s choice. I could get on a highway packed with cars that were barely moving, or I could weave my way along the back roads, traveling a further distance at a slow, but steady, speed. Although the back roads often take longer than the packed highway, I often pick them. I just like the sense that I’m moving.

I know I’m not alone in that desire to feel progress. Think of those “30 minutes from here” signs at airports and Disney World. Long lines are a bit more tolerable if they feel like they’re moving.  Researchers at Harvard Business School have found that progress,“small wins,”  also fuels worker productivity. Seeing yourself moving toward a goal at work motivates and improves performance. Student workers are also motivated by progress. According to Phyllis Hunter, “One way to encourage [intrinsic motivation] is to let children see their progress. If a teacher charts their progress, students become motivated by their own achievements and successes; it’s motivating to see your performance going up, rather than staying the same.” I’ve written about the power of progress myself, and we build a window into personal progress into all of our Scholastic (now HMH) programs.

What happens, though, to students who are essentially stuck in traffic? Some students, particularly those with special needs, may need lots of time and practice before they can see themselves moving along the same learning path as their peers. It can feel very frustrating to sit in a lane of highway that’s blocked while others zoom, or even crawl, past you. Perseverance can fade as a sense of defeat takes hold.

These students may need additional measures of progress. Here are three ways to help keep stuck students engaged:

  1. Break the learning path down into smaller steps. Inching forward is still progress. Moving from 2 words mastered to 3 or getting 4 out of 10 math problems correct from only 2 of 10 are markers of progress even if they don’t count as full success…yet. According to Carol Dweck, that “yet” word is pretty powerful too.
  2. Help students picture strengthening neural networks and synaptic connections as indicators of an internal buildup of capacity that will eventually lead to external movement. Here’s a video analogy of how effortful this process can be.
  3. Track sustained effort and focus, not just final results, as parts of the overall progress picture. Let students see the association between commitment or time on task and results.

Share your ideas for helping students who are “stuck in traffic.” What do you do to sustain their resilience?

©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 05/31/2016