How to Help a Student Who is Way Behind

A student with her head down on her desk

One of the most challenging experiences for teachers and tutors is trying to help a student who has fallen way behind.

Many classes are cumulative, so if you’re missing the content from earlier in the year – or from previous years – it’s very challenging to learn what’s being taught now.

For example, let’s say it’s the second semester of Algebra II, and a student is trying to learn all the ins and outs of polynomial functions. But they don’t know how function notation works, and they don’t remember how to factor quadratics – two topics from earlier in the year that are essential for this new topic. Learning polynomials is hard enough without having to relearn those other two topics.

For the student, it’s a very confusing experience. They don’t know what’s going on in class, and they don’t know how to make it better. As a result, they find it harder and harder to engage with the content. Frustration builds, and they slip deeper and deeper into a downward spiral of avoidance.

For a teacher or tutor working to support this student, it can be difficult to know what to do. Do you back all the way up and teach them the underlying concepts that would make the current topic easier to learn? Maybe, but that might take more time than you have, and it certainly won’t leave you with much time to teach the new content. Or do you help them fake their way through it, and drag them further down the path they’ve been on for months or years? Either way, it doesn’t feel very good.

There’s no easy answer to the question of how to support a student who is way behind. But I do have some wisdom to offer, most of it gleaned through a combination of learning from my own mistakes and studying under Greg Smith.

Understand the problem.

The first thing you need to do as a teacher or a tutor is understand what the problem is. This is critical because the problem is never that the student is “lazy” or “stupid.” The problem is structural. The way our schools and curricula are designed is the problem.

We don’t teach for mastery. We try to get as many kids as possible to “good enough” and then move on to the next topic. Massed practice and interleaving aren’t used to create strong memories. Spaced repetition isn’t used to help kids down the mastery path. Even when students are doing well, we mess things up by encouraging them to skip ahead, which is rarely a good idea.

And while students could take matters into their own hands and pursue mastery learning on their own, that’s an unrealistic expectation for most students. Plus, schools rarely teach students how to do that.

So what you get are students who have too many holes in their content knowledge to make sense of the new material. The non-stop conveyor belt of our education system doesn’t give them time to pause and get caught up, so it just gets worse and worse with each passing month. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, so many students become disengaged.

a disengaged student

And who can blame them? They didn’t fall behind because they were lazy. They’re not struggling because they’re stupid. They got here because of the way we’ve structured our educational system.

Know the way out.

The second thing for tutors and teachers to know is what a student can do to climb out of the hole they’re in.

First, it’s important to know that there is a way out, so you can instill a sense of hope in your students. Second, knowing the way out puts you in a position to give such students helpful advice, if they want it.

A downward spiral of avoidance can be reversed with hard work. It will be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but it will get better. Students who take notes in class, even when they’re confused, do better. Students who complete every homework assignment, even when it’s a struggle, learn more. Students who ask questions before, during, and after class become less confused over time.

an engaged student with his hand up

Knowledge gaps can be systematically filled. It’s a time-consuming process, but you don’t have to fill them all or do it all at once to start seeing benefits. Ideally, a student who has fallen way behind might spend 15 minutes a day working on old content before diving into their homework. When anxiety levels are high, it’s wise to spend time expanding your comfort zone by backing way, way up. If that’s counting ducks on Khan Academy, go count ducks.

However, the prospect of doing all this while still keeping up with current work is very daunting. By the time they realize this is what’s going on, they’re usually so far behind that it will take quite a while before things start to feel better. If they’ve fallen behind in multiple classes, the task of catching up can feel insurmountable (even though it’s not). And students are busy, so the suggestion of doing this kind of catchup work is a tough sell.

Thus, although you know what they can do to climb out of the pit they’re in, be careful about telling them.

Don’t give advice without permission.

If you recognize what’s going on – if you see why they’re struggling so much – resist the urge to just blurt it out. They might not be ready for that message, and dumping it on them could easily send them into a shame spiral.

a ginger cat covering its face in shame

Instead, meet them with empathy and offer to share your thoughts.

Tutor/Teacher: “It seems like this is really confusing for you, and that you’re feeling frustrated. Is that right?”

Student: “Yeah.”

Tutor/Teacher: “Well, you’re not the first student I’ve seen feeling that way. I might know what’s going on and what you can do to make it better, but the ideas I have to offer might be a little uncomfortable to hear. Do you want to talk about it? It’s totally okay to say no.”

If they say no, just let them know that it’s an open invitation should they ever change their mind. If the student says yes, gently explain why things are so confusing and what they could do to make it better.

Go slow and keep asking permission.

If they do say yes, the conversation you’ve signed up for is a tricky one, so please consider the following guidelines:

  • Stay positive, playful, and gentle the whole time.
  • Ask permission every time you change topics within the conversation. Make sure they’re still okay talking about it.
  • Do not begin with what’s wrong. Instead, praise what they’re already doing, whatever it may be: working hard, actively studying, getting things turned in, using resources, taking notes, asking for help, etc.
  • Let them know that this is really common and that it’s not their fault, and there’s nothing wrong with them.
  • But also let them know that it doesn’t help to blame teachers or blame the system. Making things better will require being proactive.
  • When you explain how to climb out of the pit, let them know that you’re going to present an ideal, best-case scenario for what to do to move forward. Then show them that this idea is actually one end of a spectrum, with doing nothing at the other end. Name some options that fall on different parts of that spectrum, and let them know that any additional engagement is worthwhile.
  • Set them up with whatever the easiest, simplest version of “next step” along that spectrum would be, and reassure them that they’ll never be in trouble with you if they don’t take it.

Students who are way behind can get caught up, but it doesn’t help to tell them how if they’re not ready to listen to your message. And the message they need to hear is not one of unfettered optimism. They need realistic optimism.

Yes, you’re way behind. And yes, getting caught up will be difficult and time-consuming and uncomfortable. But it will get better, slowly and steadily, if you work at it.

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