Intro to Intervention: identifying and supporting your struggling learners

When a student is struggling in school it can be upsetting for everyone involved. Many schools are still set up with the “one size fits most” model. This means that we often see students who are not thriving in one way or another at school.

When this happens there can be many reasons for it – often all at once! 

No matter what the cause, it’s important to find the right support for your struggling students. School can be a very difficult place for kids and them having to come and receive negative feedback day in and day out is terrible for their mental well-being. 

But where to even start? It can seem overwhelming even knowing when to help let alone, how. In this blog we’ll cover a process for getting your struggling students back on track and feeling successful again.

Signs of Struggle

First off, let’s define students who are struggling. 

The obvious student who is struggling is one who is failing their class or classes. This kind of struggle is often the most visible to schools. 

Other signs of a struggling student include:

  • Being withdrawn and seeming upset frequently
  • Spending huge amounts of time outside of the school day to complete tasks that other students complete within the school day 
  • Having few or no friends 
  • Showing signs of deprivation or neglect 
  • Acting out or frequently subject to the school’s disciplinary system
  • Being disorganized and frequently missing deadlines

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few ways to identify students who may need additional supports to be their best at school. 

Starting the process of intervention

Now that you have some students in mind who may be struggling it is time to start trying to help. 

NOTE: no part of this process should be punitive. Be very careful with your tone and words. You are not intervening because the student has done something wrong, you are intervening because the student has needs that are not being met. You should speak to every stakeholder with this clear and apparent.

Before you do anything, the best place to start is at the source, and that’s the student themselves. Speak to them in private and tell them (in a supportive, non-judgemental way) what you have observed. Ask them if they see this issue holding them back. Ask them what their observations have been on the subject. 

Often these early conversations with students will be all it takes to get to the bottom of the issue. Many students will be glad someone noticed their difficulty and at that time let you know what they need to help them to be successful. 

Other times, the student may not know what’s going on, or not feel safe sharing the situation. That’s ok too. 

During this phase your job is simply to let your student know that you see them, that you care and that you’re willing to help them. 

This is also the time you start creating your paper trail. The information you collect at every step of an intervention will inform further steps and help all stakeholders know what has been tried, what worked and what did not. 

Some schools have a system for taking and sharing notes on students, if your school has one, use that. If not, make a file (physical or digital), put a contact log in it, keep notes on all of your conversations, as well as any data you track. 

NOTE: In most US states, school personnel are mandatory reporters. This means that if a student discloses to you- or you have reason to believe that a child is at danger at their home, you MUST report this to your state’s child protective authorities. Make this duty clear to your students so they won’t feel betrayed if you have to report something. Also, report as soon as possible after you have knowledge of anything. If necessary, have someone else watch your class while you make a call somewhere private. Your duty here is serious. 

Involving a team

Some student struggles can be worked out between a student and their teacher.  Think seat changes or one on one work sessions to clear up some confusion. It’s nice when small changes make a big difference but not all struggles can be handled so quickly and easily. 

If you have spoken to the student, tried a few things to help and the issue persists, it’s time to assemble a team.

The first member of your intervention team outside of yourself and your student should be the student’s family. Call the family to see if they noticed the same or similar difficulties and what they do (if anything to address them). 

Ask them what support they think the student needs and if they have any concerns about the student’s level of frustration at school. Families can be a wealth of information, since they’ve known the student longer than you and see them in a totally different environment. 

Now that you’ve spoken to the student and the family (and you’re keeping those lines of communication open, supportive and positive) it may be time to add school personnel team members. Here’s a place to record these calls and interactions.

A great place to start in most schools is the school counselor for that student. Let them know where you are in the process, sharing that data you’ve been keeping. They may have good insight or be able to speak to the student and get even more information. 

You may also want to meet with the student’s other teachers and see if they are seeing the same concerns that you are. Sometimes students just don’t thrive in some environments and do thrive in others. See what other people are doing that is successful and try to implement a version of it in your class. 

On the flip side if all of your colleagues are seeing the same thing, that may point to a cause or causes outside of the ability of accommodations to alleviate. 

If the student’s struggles appear to be material, such as not having necessary items for school or even clothing or food, it’s a good time to involve the school social worker (if you have one) and / or school nurse. If a student is struggling with their basic needs they are unlikely to be able to function well at school. 

Assemble the team 

Sometimes students need a lot of support in order to be successful. That is totally ok and normal. If you have spoken to all of your team members and the student is still not showing improvement it’s time to meet to discuss options and make plans. 

This may be the point when you start the IEP process of evaluation if the student has not been identified as needing an IEP in the past. If the student already has an IEP, or 504 plan, this may be the time for the team to meet and create a new plan. 

This may be the point where you try more intensive intervention programs your school has available. This could be when the school helps put the family in touch with other social services like counseling. 

If you have tried other things in the past and everyone agrees the student still isn’t thriving then it may be time to explore these additional options. Obviously, you as one person can’t make all these things happen, but you’ve kept track of the process, you’ve involved every stakeholder and you’ve kept the team working towards improving conditions for this student. 

Interventions are not a magic wand

Our schools are set up to rank people. They’re set up with certain expectations and pressures. They are limited in both time and resources. You will not be able to get every student everything they need to be successful. 

When done right, the intervention process can be transformative in a student’s life. It can give them the support they always needed and thus the confidence they lacked and they can really blossom. 

Other times, it can go nowhere and the student may continue to struggle all the way through school. 

In the immortal words of Whitney Houston, “It’s not right, but it’s ok”. You do what you can. You are at least communicating to your student that you care. You’re saying you see them and you want to help. That’s all that one person can be asked to do.

Need help with this process? Check out our intervention Toolkit, a great place to find everything you need to run a smooth intervention process.

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