Understanding the Academic
Needs of Students
Whether you are new to the paraprofessional world, or you’ve been a paraprofessional for many years, supporting student needs in the classroom can be challenging. It takes patience, kindness, persistence and an ability to be observant to work with students who have challenges. The reality is that paras don’t have the same learning opportunities and experiences as teachers, and common time to explain things are rare. So, I’m hoping to level the playing field a little bit with this series:
- Part 1 Understanding the Academic Needs of Students
- Part 2 Understanding the Behavioral Needs of Students
- Part 3 Supporting Students Needs in the Classroom
On to Part 1 Understanding the Academic Needs of Students
Students can have a wide variety of issues that impact their learning. They are at different levels with their skills all the way from very basic to almost caught up with others. It’s good to have an understanding of how and where learners can be impacted, so when you see support on an IEP at a Glance or Snapshot it makes more sense. These are, in my opinion, the 4 most prominent needs that impact academic progress:
Students can have one or both issues. The more students are impacted by their deficit in this area, the more they are impacted in the classroom. There are always exceptions.
Students who have word reading difficulties struggle to read the words on the page or struggle to read the words on the page efficiently. They may be a little bit behind their peers(a year) or they may be farther behind (2-3+ years). The greater the delay, the more impact is felt in the classroom. These students likely have an additional reading class in their schedule to give them more practice. They may have issues with comprehension or not.
Students can struggle with both literal types of questions(who what where when) and inferential types of questions(how, why). Many kids who struggle with comprehension are fine with literal questions. As students become learners and not just readers, more and more questions become how and why and prove it. These additional expectations are hard for learners to keep up with. Comprehension issues generally impact the bigger picture more because while we aren’t always reading, we are always comprehending.
Many students with autism are good word readers, understand word meanings and can answer literal questions from the text. But, they often have a separate comprehension struggle. There is not a general misunderstanding, it’s very specific. Questions that require them to take someone else’s perspective or relate to topics they don’t like can be met with I don’t know or a refusal.
SO WHAT DO WE DO: Students who struggle with reading need a reduced reading load. This means things such as the use of an audiobook, reading with a partner/small group, choosing a book that has fewer pages for a book club, reading with staff, providing an additional book for home so parents can read together. This includes all classes: even the math and sciences. For students who have autism, consider rewording questions or helping answer a new question.
Most students struggle with conventions. Aside from that, overall writing for kids who struggle seem to fall in one of three camps: Wall of text, not much content, and can do most things but it takes a long time.
Organization and flow
Despite seeing models and using graphic organizers, some kids work so hard to get their ideas so they don’t think too much about how many paragraphs, how many sections, or just what a complete response looks like. Mostly, students just write a wall of words without thinking about breaking things up into paragraphs.
How to do details is a challenge for many writers. Writing more complex sentences or having variety so its interesting. Selecting just the right word like saunter vs walk. Being able to include text evidence. Students who struggle here will have very simple sentences with very basic words. They often will not include evidence to support their ideas. Sometimes this is also a matter of not being able to spell the better word.
Spelling, punctuation, and editing issues. This is the first thing most readers notice. But what may not be as obvious, is that students who struggle with this area, won’t write as much because they don’t know how to spell or punctuate. So it’s important to get kids to get stuff down on the page so we can fix it later.
Need More Time
This is a tough one with grading being more about standards these days. We don’t want to penalize students who can do the work, but need more time. The problem is we only have so much time on a project and giving extra time only gives more stress to the student because they are working on both projects. The goal becomes helping them get as much done as possible within the time frame and/or working through each assignment with a student to determine what parts need to be done this time.
SO WHAT DO WE DO: Students who struggle with writing need a reduced writing load or support and tools that allow them to work more efficiently. Technology such as using a computer for spell checker, or speech to text, graphic organizers to remind students of what and how a piece should look, reduction of the writing expectations or additional time provided, someone who can write for them for a time(scribe) are all useful supports for students who need support with writing.
Students can have one or both issues. Students who struggle with math often also struggle with reading and writing, but periodically, there will be a student who just has a math learning disability.
This is essentially struggling with things like basic facts or solving calculations efficiently without a calculator. Most students are good with adding and subtracting as they move into higher grade levels. Not always, but most. But by middle school, many are still struggling with being able to do multiplication, division and any calculations involving fractions. As students get older, the expectation is that kids can flip nimbly between all types of calculations, so this becomes a challenge for students.
Problem-solving is most often a reading issue and is common especially with students who have reading comprehension difficulties. Again, it’s about pulling apart what the problem is asking them to do and then doing it. Which is why it’s uncommon to see someone who has a singular problem-solving math issue but no reading comprehension issue. The point of problem-solving is knowing what it’s asking for, knowing the process and then being able to do the calculations.
SO WHAT DO WE DO: Students who struggle with math generally some form of reduced workload. Working in teams or partners for problem-solving, multiplication table for calculating or the use of a calculator for daily work. Reducing the writing load also can help. Rather than having to copy problems from a textbook, providing copies of the problems written out already can help equal out the workload.
Lastly, organization skills play a role in academic success. Students need to be able to access regularly needed materials like paper and pencils as well as the work from the previous day so they can keep going. They may struggle to keep track of their own materials, losing/misplacing things they’ve already put effort into either at home or at school. It may be somewhere in their locker or in any of the various places they’ve been all day. The biggest trouble is the excess time needing to be taken to either locate or redo work. In addition to the other academic areas, some students are very challenged with this.
SO WHAT DO WE DO: Students who struggle here need support and reduced organizational expectations. The easiest way of handling this is to keep work materials in the space where they need to be. A cubby somewhere in the room can work, a back table, a drawer. Students can their current work as well as folders or binders with paper and writing utensils. Or some students may use a single binder they carry around to all classes.
Understanding how and why students are struggling often helps us determine what to do next. Each case is very individual and you are key to the success of each student you work with. Stay tuned for Part 2, Understanding Behavior Needs and then for the final wrap up where we put all the knowledge together in Part 3-Supporting Students IEP Needs in the Classroom.
Let me know if you have questions in the comments section below.