When supporting a student through these difficulties, it can be useful to first identify if the difficulties are due to ‘will’, to ‘skill, or maybe a bit of both.
Will refers to the motivational aspects of school life. Here I will focus on one part of motivation that is very important to help students who are struggling at school – self-belief.
Self-belief is students’ confidence in their ability to understand or to do well in schoolwork, to meet challenges they face, and to perform to the best of their ability.
One practical way to help build a student’s self-belief is to encourage them to ‘chunk’ important tasks.
1. Breaking schoolwork tasks into bite-size pieces;
2. Seeing the completion of each piece as a success.
The first part of chunking boosts self-belief because the student sees the task as more doable. The second builds self-belief because micro-successes are built into the process, which boosts the student’s belief in themselves as they do the task.
Another way to help build self-belief is to expand the student’s views about success. All too often students see success too narrowly, such as in terms of being the best, topping the class, and beating others.
The reality is that there are many other forms of genuine success that occur at school, such as improvement, personal progress, mastery, and learning new things.
These successes are accessible to all students, and when students start recognising the different ways they succeed, they have more opportunities to feel confident in themselves.
Skill refers to the knowledge and functions needed to learn and perform at school. For knowledge, it might be information and understanding of key concepts required to understand a subject.
For functions, it might include things like literacy, numeracy, executive functions such as paying attention and focusing, and self-organizational and study skills such as planning and monitoring.
Here I’ll focus on the last two, planning and monitoring.
To help students plan for tasks, they can be taught how to: get it clear what the task is asking, spend time thinking out how to do the task, spend a few minutes planning an answer, and write down a plan before starting it.
Some monitoring and checking strategies to share with students include: re-reading the question after each paragraph is written, re-reading the answer/essay when finished, writing a draft before handing it in, double-checking calculations, checking that each part of the question has been answered, and pausing a moment to think before writing the first thing that comes to mind.
The good news is that both will and skill can be learnt and changed – and it can be very helpful to promptly address them if a student is struggling with school.
Further reading: Martin, A.J. (2010). Building classroom success: Eliminating academic fear and failure. New York: Continuum.
The author's publications can be accessed via his ResearchGate account.