Stress and anxiety can devastate children with reading and other disabilities:
Stress is bad for children. It’s associated with health problems, school failures, and youth delinquency…. High stress levels have been associated with … asthma and depression…. Stress directly affects ‘attention, memory, planning, and behavior control.’ When the mind is under emotional stress, it produces the peptide cortisol…. Cortisol generally is a blessing because we don’t become controlled by our past negative experiences. However, if cortisol is not kept in balance, learning can and will stop. (Creedon, 2011, p. 34)
Children with reading disabilities or other disabilities become stressed and anxious when they believe they have no control over a situation or activity, believe they can’t succeed, and believe their lack of control and inevitable failure will harm them. If schools allow teachers to continuously adapt instruction to struggling readers’ current needs and abilities—which some schools forbid, but deny—teachers can often help them develop a healthy sense of control and a belief that with reasonable, moderate effort they can succeed. This helps prevent chronic, destructive stress. Teachers can do this by giving struggling readers:
- Materials at their proper independent and instructional levels.
- Limited choices with activities at their proper independent and instructional levels.
- Feedback that emphasizes recent successes, effort, and the correct use of strategies.
- Lots of opportunity to safely express their needs and concerns.
While we have often stressed the importance of giving struggling readers (and all readers) materials at their proper independent and instructional levels, in this post, we’ll discuss three other suggestions that involve giving struggling readers (as well as non struggling readers ): limited choices, constructive feedback, and opportunities to safely express their needs and concerns. All three suggestions can increase children’s sense of control, reducing stress and anxiety, and, in many cases, strengthening their motivation for schoolwork.
As you read our suggestions, ask yourself: How can I do these at home, in ways that will reduce my child’s stress and increase his confidence and motivation?
Our Three Suggestions
Limited Choices. Choice motivates. In studying the role of choice in motivation and achievement, Guthrie concluded:
- “Children need choice to develop independence…. Teachers who are successful at motivating students often provide myriad choices…. Choice is motivating because it affords students with control” (Guthrie, 2001).
- Choice can strengthen children’s reading achievement and comprehension (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004).
Limiting choices to two or three relevant, independent or instructional level activities has the advantage of improving learning and being time efficient and manageable for struggling readers and teachers. Readers can quickly make the choices they prefer. By presenting children with two or three choices, teachers can motivate struggling readers to engage fully in the activities, increasing the joy of teaching. Regularly giving children choices goes beyond the moment; it helps them achieve three of education’s long-term goals: autonomy, independence, and motivation.
Here’s a choice that Mrs. McCormick, a fourth grade teacher, might give Liam, a struggling reader who needs to build his listening vocabulary: “Liam, your Dad said that for your reading homework, he’d like to read a book to you and talk about it. Here are three books on something you always like: dinosaurs. Take a few minutes and pick out the one you want to give your Dad.”
Feedback. Feedback should stress recent successes, effort, and the correct use of learning strategies. If materials and activities are at the struggling readers’ proper independent or instructional level, they should have many successes for teachers to draw upon.
Once struggling readers have several recent successes, teachers can help them link their new activities to their previous successes. They can do this by explicitly showing and asking them how their new activities resemble their past successes and then reminding them of what they did to succeed. Linking the activities may well decrease stress and create the belief that “I did it before. I can do it again.”
If struggling readers expect success because they previously succeeded on similar activities, and their new activities are at their proper independent or instructional level, they’re likely to make the effort needed to succeed. This creates opportunities for teachers to make effort—a controllable factor—part of their feedback: “Liam, you made a good effort. You stuck to it. You didn’t quit. And this helped you succeed.”
Many struggling readers don’t know the sequence of steps—the learning strategy— it takes to succeed in academic activities, such as decoding unknown words. Thus, teachers need to explicitly and systematically teach them the strategies or secrets of learning that lead to success. If, for example, struggling readers are frustrated by their random, haphazard efforts to decode unknown words, they might well profit from learning Caldwell and Leslie’s Cross-Checking (2005, p. 67) learning strategy:
- Say the first sound or sounds of the word.
- Finish reading the sentence.
- Go back and think of a word that has the same first sound or sounds.
- See if the word has a spelling pattern that you know. If it does, use the compare-contrast strategy to figure out the word. [A previously taught strategy. The child might say, “If d-o-w-n is down, then t-o-w-n must be town.”]
- When you think you know the word, say it and finish the sentence.
- Reread the sentence with the word to make sure it makes sense.
If Liam uses the Cross-Checking strategy successfully, his teacher’s feedback might emphasize effort and his correct use of the strategy: “Liam, you made a good effort. You stuck to it. You correctly used the Cross-Checking strategy we worked on. Using it correctly helped you succeed. Great job!”
Listening. For struggling readers and many other children, school is stressful beyond endurance. Often, thoughts of school alone provoke extreme anxiety. It’s a place to avoid. By giving a struggling reader lots of opportunities to safely express his needs and concerns, a teacher can help a struggling reader reduce his stress by feeling more in control of his life. Just by listening carefully—without quickly evaluating the reader’s comments or imposing her views on him—a teacher can often calm a stressed child. This can set the stage for helping him develop solutions to address his needs and concerns. But as children will sometime announce, listening alone is often enough.
In high school, Mr. Meiselman’s willingness to always listen to me talk about my needs and concerns, despite my severe stutter, probably kept me out of prison and helped me think about college. Though fifty years have passed, I remember this: listening works.
If your child is eligible for special education, his Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team, of which you’re a member, must write a new IEP for him at least annually. Make sure that his IEP states that for homework and independent classwork, all reading materials must be at his appropriate independent level, and that for instruction, in which his teacher directly instructs and works with him, all materials must be at his appropriate instructional level. Except on rare occasions, when he requests more difficult materials on a topic he finds immensely interesting, teachers should not ask him to read such materials. Usually, they’re frustrating. Doing this is the basis for our other three suggestions.
Once proper reading levels are part of your child’s IEP, ask that it include this post’s three suggestions. Even if they’re not included, discuss them with your child’s teacher. They might add immeasurably to the quality of your child’s school life. For detailed information on what you should do before, during, and after IEP meetings, see our e-book: Negotiating Your Child’s IEP: A Step-By-Step Guide (Margolis and Brannigan, 2014).
Margolis, H.,& Brannigan, G.G. (2014). Negotiating Your Child’s IEP: A Step-By-Step Guide . http://www.amazon.com/Negotiating-Your-Childs-Step-Step-ebook/dp/B00L72JRKO/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_1
Caldwell, J. S., & Leslie, L. (2005). Intervention Strategies to Follow Informal Reading Inventory Assessment. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Creedon, D. W.. (2011). Fight the stress of urban education with the arts. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(6), 34-36.
Guthrie, J. T. (2001). Contexts for Engagement and Motivation in Reading. Retrieved from http://www.readingonline.org/articles/handbook/guthrie/ .
Guthrie, J. T., & Humenick, N. M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds), The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research (pp. 329–354). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Howard Margolis © Reading2008 & Beyond