The two years of the pandemic have paved the way towards newer possibilities and have helped us rethink our conventional teaching methods. Many SEN students benefited from working at their own pace during the virtual learning and avoiding the shame of underperformance and their weaknesses highlighted in the classroom. However, these are the four ways we educators can do differently to support vulnerable learners and help them thrive at in-person learning.
Let us build Relationships - If there is one thing that SEN students will benefit from, it is having good relationships in the classroom. We have heard it said that rules without relationships lead to rebellion. Us educators need to recognize that fostering supportive relationships with students is a fundamental part of a student's educational experience. If we want our struggling learners to succeed in our classrooms, we need to counter that with relational equity—building the value of the relationship between teacher and student over time. When students know that their teachers are on their team and want the best for them, they are ready to work hard. When teachers show genuine interest in their students' well-being, children listen, trust, and learn.
Disarm Students with Understanding - Students often expect teachers to react to underperformance with inevitable consequences, but when teachers do the unexpected, like reacting with empathy, compassion, and understanding, the students become disarmed and vulnerable in a good way. When we talk to students about their performance in an empathic way and even surprise them with a smile, there is a greater likelihood of a productive conversation. Instead of giving one-word answers and responding defensively, often, the students relax their self-preserving posture and engage in a way that leads to solutions.
Problem Solve in a Meaningful Way - SEN students struggle with this skill. When we use underachievement as an opportunity for problem-solving, we can make our students highly productive. With SEN students, we can always start by brainstorming possible solutions to the root issue and then choose the most realistic solution. This year especially, our vulnerable students might need help becoming efficient in their schoolwork, so they might need to learn how to use a calendar or specific intervention. Some of these issues can be solved through coaching and conversations, while others might require us to widen the circle of support.
Nurture Students Self Advocacy Skills – Helping SEN students through underperformance requires sensitivity and authenticity. It sometimes means being deliberate about supporting our students' welfare. When we prioritize the whole child, rather than just their academic performance, we bring them to life. When we address issues in a student's academic performance, it becomes an opportunity to strengthen their self-advocacy tool kit. Successfully communicating with teachers is a learned skill that sets the stage for later self-advocacy with professors and supervisors—though SEN students may know that there is help available but, often, they have no idea how to ask. If a student is struggling in one class, the odds are that they are also struggling in other classes. When we teach them to ask for help, it may lead them to success and build their confidence.
These might be the simplest approaches, yet they may yield tremendous improvement from struggling students. Let us keep sincere our sensitivity to students' diversity and our motivation high, to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students as we embark on a brand new year.