I want to encourage some very low students.


I work with very low math students. 
Part of my plan for next year is to convince them that
 things can be different. I want to convince them that they can find
 success and not be so frustrated! The worst behavior cases seem
 to be the kids that have given up.
 But then I worry! Maybe I shouldn’t try to convince them that
 they can succeed. What if I’m just setting them up for disappointment? What if they don’t realize that they will have
 to TRY in order for that to happen? I doubt myself constantly.
 Any suggestions?


I think you’re absolutely on the right track!

Convincing your students that putting in 
effort is a worthwhile thing to do is very important. I believe it’s a key part of our job. Certainly, consistent effort is 
the only way a less capable student is going to find success.

But at the same time, I don’t think you should promise anyone “specific” successes. 
For example, I don’t think it would be wise (at least not in the first week of school, before you know your students well,) to promise a someone with learning 
difficulties that they could successfully pass a difficult course–simply as a result of expending 
effort. At that early point, you wouldn’t know 
if that was even possible. Every year there are 
many students who DON’T pass math or other difficult subjects, DESPITE 
many hours of hard work, diligent concentration and even the assistance of a 
personal tutor—they simply don’t have the innate cognitive ability.

For part of the week, I work at an 
alternate high school with the lowest students in our school district. Almost all of these 
students have come to this school because they are no longer welcome at any other 
high school in our area – usually for reasons of serious misbehavior (which often 
ultimately stem from low academic skills, dysfunctional home lives, mental illness, 
addictions etc.)

My teaching partner and I find that it’s best to be completely honest in the sense of letting them know that we actually don’t know how far they can go 
in their learning but that if they are willing to give us a chance, and if they’re willing 
to attend regularly, we CAN promise them they will see results. They will see 
PROGRESS. Then, once we’ve promised them progress, we do everything we can to make sure 
that they do see bits of progress (and therefore, success) EVERY DAY. We tailor our teaching to their needs so that they can succeed in baby 
steps if necessary.

For a very discouraged student, promising them that they will SUCCEED (in a specific 
way) is probably too much for them to initially believe. By promising too much, you 
might likely “scare” them. With these sorts of kids that likely means MORE 
behavior problems; it’s actually a defense mechanism for them. Once students have found some success through your careful guiding of instruction, you’ll find it gets 
easier and easier to convince them TO TRY. That’s when they become willing to 
believe you that bigger successes are possible–because you have proven to them 
that success is within reach. At that point, you may be able to promise more specific successes because you will have a better grasp of what is realistically possible for 

At that point, my partner and I also do everything we can to ELICIT goals from the 
students and encourage them to make small learning decisions for themselves. 
Dr. Marshall calls this EMPOWERING students through choice. Dr. Gordon Neufeld 
describes it as helping young people “put their hands on the steering wheel.” 
If you can help students to make goals for themselves (just small ones at first,) then 
almost automatically they become willing to put forth the necessary effort to improve 
(and hopefully, succeed.)

After all, if a person doesn’t get their hands on the steering wheel, how are they ever going to 
drive on their own and get where they want to go? Students who are “driving” themselves are going to go further and faster, than those who have to wait for the TEACHER to drive them! This helps foster the desire to operate with INTERNAL motivation, which 
is a very powerful driving force indeed!

Just as a small example, in our high school literacy job, most of our students have an 
individualized stack of vocabulary cards to help them increase the number of words 
they know. At the end of reading a selection, instead of us picking out the words we think they should practice again, we ask them to determine which words they would 
like to add to their practice decks, based on which they think will be of value to them 
in the future. Over time we find that this sort of continual focus on turning over small 
decisions to them, prompts an inner desire to take charge of their own learning and 
then they start to VOLUNTARILY voice small goals now and then – a significant sign of 
progress in and of itself!

If I were teaching math as you do, I would ask the students which type of 
questions they thought they needed to practice more and then I would follow 
through with that on subsequent days or would be sure to assign those types of questions for 
homework. I would ask them to determine HOW MANY questions they thought they 
needed or how difficult the questions should be. Anything you can do to turn over small decisions to your low students will pay big dividends in the long run, as they start to 
see that they can take charge of their own learning.

Sometimes we find that students make unrealistic goals for themselves. For 
example, our lowest student, 19 years old, asked me for a ride home on the last day 
of school because it was a very hot day and he didn’t want to walk, pushing a stroller, 
(Yes, he has a 2 year old son!) the five 
miles that he usually walks to get home.

As I dropped him off, I asked if he planned to return to school next year and he said, 
“Yes! And I know what I want to do. I want to read the Driver’s Manual and take my 
driving test. I’m going to sit down with the principal and you and all my teachers and 
tell them that this is what I want to learn at school.”

My heart sank. This wonderful, very personable and caring young fellow has extreme 
symptoms of FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.) Despite having attended school in a resource room setting, with a 
student/teacher ratio of less than 10 to 1, for all his elementary school years, he 
couldn’t read ANYTHING at all when we met him two years ago. His parole officer 
told us that prior to working in our program, he couldn’t even find his own name on a 
page of writing.

It has taken us 160 sessions of 30 minutes each, over two years, to get him to part-
way through a grade one level and we consider this a huge success, especially because his 
progress is speeding up as time goes on. However, our highest hope for him is that 
over the next couple of years (as he goes through Adult Ed.,) that we’ll be able to get 
him to a grade three or four reading level—he simply doesn’t have what it takes to read 
the driver’s manual–probably ever.

My first thought was that I needed to tone down his expectations for what he could 
achieve, so as to protect him from disappointment, but thank goodness, I suddenly 
remembered some advice that I heard long ago from a school counselor. 
This man had said that as adults, it is not our job to squash the dreams of children. 
REGARDLESS of how unrealistic we feel a child’s dream is, it is our JOB to support 
them and cheer them on. And then, if necessary, it is our job to be there to support and comfort and love 
them, should they face disappointment or failure. Our job is to encourage, assist and support them through disappointment, not to help them avoid the experience altogether.

With that in mind, I said, “Doug, 
that is an exciting and challenging dream you have! Darlene and I will do all we can 
to help you work towards it!”

And with that sort of mindset, on the way home I thought of how we can start to support him as he works toward meeting his goal. We can begin with the easiest section–on traffic signs, 
reading the short labels that describe them. And at the same time that we can 
continue to teach him at his developmental level, from his grade one books, “Bread for the Ducklings” and 
“Tasha Rides a Bike!”

Good luck! I think your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher!