9 Ways to Help Failing Students
Please, not again!
You’re starting to panic (just a little) as you grade Veronica’s latest test. She’s been struggling, but has been making some progress, and you’re desperately hoping this test reflects that.
But it doesn’t look like this paper is getting a smiley face.
Instead, it looks green enough to be a forrest.
See, you tried to ease the blow by marking it in green instead of red. At least it’s not bleeding, you think.
But nothing can ease the pain of how bad this test is.
Veronica is failing, and you don’t know what on earth to do about it.
Failing students tend to bring up a variety of emotions in us. We get frustrated, we get worried. We wonder if we’re a horrible teacher. We want to
strangle them give them a mean look for not trying hard enough.
But what’s worse, we often simply don’t know what to do. We’re trying our best, and it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Are we missing something? Is it our fault?
Maybe it would help to run around in a panic (just for a minute). Scream (just a little)…
Or maybe just throw our hands up in the air and give up.
But while these may all sound quite tempting, they’re not quite going to be that helpful.
So instead, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s recognize that often our students’ lack of effort is a big part of the problem.
But let’s also realize that, as the teacher, there’s a lot we can still do to help – and it’s our responsibility to do all we can.
So what exactly can we do to help the students who are failing our class? I’m so glad you asked….
How to Help a Failing Student
- Get the parents involved early. Whether or not you think the parents will actually make a difference, go ahead and involve them early. The responsibility for teaching kids is ultimately the parents’, not ours, so they need to be informed about what’s going on.
But don’t just tell them their kid is failing. Give them specific ideas of what they can do to help. Many parents want to help but just don’t know exactly what to do. Use language like “We all want so-and-so to succeed and I believe he would if _____.”
(Speaking of parents, if you have some that are becoming quite challenging, check out my post “What to Do with the Parent Who’s Driving You Crazy“
- Intentionally help the student whenever possible. How you do this will vary depending on your grade level and class structure, but make it a priority to help your failing students whenever you can. In my middle school math classroom, I scheduled time for students to work on problems so that I can move around the classroom & help individuals. Make it a point to check in on your failing students, even if they didn’t raise their hands for help. And if you do see their hand up, make them your first priority.
- Encourage them. Considering how frustrated and discouraged as we sometimes get with our struggling students, imagine how they must feel. Yes, sometimes it seems like they don’t care, but often this is just a mask or coping mechanism for their frustration. We need to encourage them as much as possible. Praise them for even the smallest successes or improvements, and tell them that you believe in them and know they can succeed.
- Provide opportunity for self-reflection. Help the student walk through a process of self-reflection. This will, of course, vary depending on the age, but for middle school and high school I give them a short questionnaire that ask them to 1) list all the reasons they think they were failing and 2) write down a plan for how to improve. Then go over it with them, encouraging them and giving additional ideas (and occasionally prodding them to think a little deeper).
Now we all know that asking a student questions like this can result in the blank stare. But don’t let them off the hook. Be patient and let them sit there and think about it (while you do something else, of course). Or ask prodding questions such as “Do you think not doing your homework is part of the problem?” to help get the ball rolling.
- Ask how you can help. This is a simple concept, but we don’t do it often enough. Ask the failing student what you, as their teacher, can do to help. You may not get much of an answer, but you may also be surprised at their response. Then, of course, do what you can.
- Look for underlying problems. Try to determine what underlying problems are causing them to struggle. Do they have a genuine learning disability? Are there problems at home? Do they need glasses? Are they playing too many video games? Often we try to correct the symptoms without ever getting to the root of the problem.
- Require them to complete class work. I realize this is easier said than done, but do everything in your power to get them to complete their work. Don’t just let them off the hook: require them to at least make a valiant attempt. See the post 17 Ways to Get Your Students to Actually Do Their Work for more ideas for how to make this happen.
- Don’t give up on them. Too often it seems like nothing is ever going to change, but we can’t give up on our students. Sometimes we won’t see the results for months or even years, but that doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time. We’ve got to believe in our students and show them that we believe in them. It’s a conscious choice – it does not depend on our feelings at the moment.
- When all else fails, let them fail. When you’ve done all you can and it’s report card time and they clearly earned an F, give them an F. Now I know in some schools this is simply not allowed (which is a tragedy), but unless it’s forbidden, go ahead and put the F on the report card.
Just passing them along to the next grade or course is not helping them, and often what they need most is to go through the course again.
I’ve seen firsthand how valuable this can be with students who had to retake my Algebra I course (either because they failed or as a recommendation because they barely passed). They always do so much better the second time around & they leave the course with increased confidence. To have simply passed them on to Algebra II would not have been a kindness – it would have set them up for more failure and confusion.
Need to think this one through a little more? Check out the post Should Failing Students be Held Back?
Pin for Later: Pin this post where you can easily find it when you need a refresher: