The Mead School

Techniques for Supporting Reluctant Learners


Techniques for Supporting Reluctant Learners

Reluctant learners often earn the unfortunate definition of the student no one wants to teach.

They come with a reputation that precedes them as being challenging, unmotivated, and difficult to engage. Many refuse to work, may be disrespectful, shut down, and discouraged. 

Staff meet about them constantly, develop plans, and call parent meetings - but what prevents engagement and success for these students? What strategies might support engagement, and does teacher relationship impact student success and engagement in any way?

The words “…get away from me, I don’t like you, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to learn, are so categorically absolute (Walsh, 2006).” The words and defenses used by reluctant learners often push teachers away making it more difficult to reach across and want to engage them.  “…Reluctant learners [are similar in they] do not complete tasks, do avoid challenges, and are satisfied with just getting by. They are often capable but do not seem concerned about achieving in school (Sanacore, 2008).”  Often reluctant learners have low self-esteem or learned helplessness.

Strategies to increase motivation

“Motivation is a key factor in promoting academic success, and intrinsic motivation is especially important for developing autonomous learners (Sanacore, 2008).” The development of intrinsic motivation instead of relying on extrinsic motivation, rewards, and consequences, is essential for engagement.

There are agreed-upon strategies to increase this intrinsic motivation and help increase engagement and success for reluctant learners.

-  Taking the time to know your student or child and to build their interests into their day and the curriculum increases a student’s connection to what they are learning.

-  Allowing and encouraging choices of what a reluctant learner can learn also increases individual motivation and relevance.

-  Teachers can balance the learning environment with both praise and challenge to develop a structure that increases intrinsic motivation.

-  A classroom with a culture of belonging where a student’s feelings, opinions, and choices are taken into account becomes vital to the success of reluctant learners. Student/teacher relationships are proven by research to build the bonds and trust often necessary to reach reluctant learners and guide them to success. Increasing intrinsic motivation and taking time to develop trusting relationships are two ways forward.    

The PATH Forward

Descriptive Inquiry is a process that was developed by Patricia Carini at the Prospect School in the 1960’s. The Prospect School was an “independent school that existed from 1965-1991 in North Bennington, Vermont (Kittaka, 2016).“ "Descriptive Inquiry is based on the belief that every child is essentially particular…[it] enables the participants to see the unique strengths of each child instead of diagnosing and labeling (Kittaka, 2016).” The Descriptive Process works as “a collaborative effort that brings teachers and parents together to share their knowledge of the child…Everyone pulls their thoughts together to share what they have noticed, and to explore ways to expand the child’s interests [using 5 headings, non-judgmental language, respect, and reflection] (Carini, 2001).” This method has similarities to a PATH meeting, which was developed more recently and for a different population, mainly special needs or mental health patients.

The PATH, Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope, is a person-centered planning tool that involves teachers, therapists, parents, friends, the student, a facilitator, and sometimes a graphics facilitator. It's seen as a party where snacks and a celebration can happen. All gather together and hang chart paper on the walls. On the chart, paper are titles such as dreams, accomplishments, 5-year vision, new plan of action. The meeting is organic and framed positively. For example, everyone, including the student, may speak about dreams or interests for the student. All dreams are written, even those seemingly out of reach.

As a result of all of the dreams and visions on the papers, a plan of action is developed, often just utilizing the first or prerequisite step towards a goal. This becomes the person’s action plan. The facilitator then writes a report and if there was no graphics facilitator, the student, on his own or with help, can artistically draw out and bring life to their PATH. There are some amazing online examples of students PATH’s drawn out. The PATH and the process of Descriptive Inquiry allow our reluctant learners to have agency over their learning, feel supported, and see the relevance in their education.

The energy of a PATH meeting is different than a usual IEP or parent teacher conference. The PATH meeting process was developed 15 years ago by Beth Mount, John O’Brian, and Connie O’Brian. Although it was designed for use with the more impaired special needs population, its potential can be reimagined for reluctant learners. This can be used as a tool to teach based on student strengths and interests, making learning relevant and engaging to the student.

These are just two child-centered approaches to understanding the child as a whole person and learner, and also approaches that could be used as tools for when one is really stuck as an educator or a parent. It is so important to have methods and tools, especially those that allow you to put that child back into a space of respect and reflection, allowing something new to be brought forth that the child and parents have an intimate, lead role in. These are two intuitive, thoughtful, and collaborative approaches  that can reignite a passion for learning in children. They strengthen and build relationships and dialogue while at the same time increasing intrinsic motivation. All things necessary and worthwhile to explore while moving forward and supporting our reluctant learners, helping them achieve engagement and success.

For more information, cited literature, or resources, contact Lisa Corner, Nexus at Mead, at lisa_corner@meadschool.org.