Struggling Readers: Building Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance

By Richard Cash, Ed.D. and Katherine McKnight, Ph.D.

Struggling. At-Risk. Low performing. Whatever you call students who don’t read proficiently, it’s the same outcome. Academic failure. Unfortunately, a whopping number of students today are in that category. The frustrating thing? The problem all too often boils down to self-regulation—or a lack of.

Self-regulation may seem simple enough. Behaviorally, self- regulation is the ability to work toward your long-term interests—in the case of students, that would be college- and career-readiness. Emotionally, it’s the ability to keep your feelings in check, especially negative ones.

One thing is for sure, you know it when a child isn’t self-regulated. He or she lacks confidence…won’t ask for help…gets distracted…doesn’t pay attention…lacks efficient study habits and organizational skills. You probably have a child—or more—like that in your classroom, don’t you?

So, what does self-regulation have to do with literacy development? The theory is that self-regulation, along with resiliency, helps to determine a child’s mental health and academic success. You’ve no doubt seen this play out in your classroom: Children who possess resilience and self-regulation are more likely to be well-adjusted and successful.

But wait—isn’t self-regulation something you’re born with? Either you got it or you don’t? Not true. And, when a child realizes that self-regulation is a skill that he or she CAN develop, the light bulb turn on.

Here are some of the many ways you can drive that “aha” moment in your classroom:

  • Teach promotional strategies. They are essential to a child’s success. Children who practice these find joy in trying…like the risk…are driven…feel it’s worth their time and worth achieving the goal... think they can succeed... like being challenged and going beyond their limits.
  • Develop the right mindset. Underachievers think in terms of “I can’t.” They believe you either have intelligence and talent or you don’t. There’s no way out of it. Consequently, they sorely lack confidence. Successful students have a growth mindset. They believe the most basic abilities can be developed. You simply begin with what you have and build from there. If you dedicate yourself and put in the effort, you’ll succeed.
  • Let students know they CAN. You can help low-performers shift their mindset. You can recognize a student’s ability to adapt to, shape, and/or select environments where their abilities will be nurtured or challenged. You can give constructive feedback that focuses on improvement strategies. You can praise a student’s effort—rather than ability. Watch what happens when instead of saying You’re so smart, you say I know how hard you’ve worked.

Take an honest look at your classroom. Do students have opportunities to take safe risks? Do you offer quality, descriptive feedback? Options and choices? Do you give control to your students? Do you teach strategies for handling failure—failure is a good thing, you know. Do you make an effort to reduce stress and anxiety? Do you make learning worth it?

For a deeper look at how to build self-regulation and develop literacy skills while learning content, check out SDE’s webinar Closing the Achievement Gap in the Common Core Era: Developing Persistence, Patience, and Perseverance in Literacy by educational leader Richard Cash, Ed.D. and veteran teacher Katie McKnight, Ph.D.