Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Students in the Classroom
Ethnicity, Socio-economic Status, Community Culture, Special Needs, Learning Styles, Interest, Age and Other Student Differences
Students are all different. That is what makes students unique and interesting human beings. Obvious differences include hair color, height, size, and eye color. Other differences may not be so obvious, but definitely affect learning and behavior in the classrooms. Although classroom management plans are written for most classroom settings, classroom management is also affected by student characteristics. Individual goals, interests, culture, home background, age, academic ability levels, mental health issues, behavior problems, eating disorders, inappropriate or unhealthy sexual practices, use of drugs, and addiction problems influence the classroom management plan. Classrooms are also affected by life circumstances of the children and adolescents. Students come from a wide range of experiences and situations that determine how they react to classroom activities and classroom management procedures. Although schools should be places of safety and security, they often provide opportunities for student-on-student bullying and inappropriate interactions between students (Marzano, Gaddy, Foseid, Foseid, & Marzano, 2005). Just as teachers modify instruction for student differences, teachers make adjustments to classroom management to meet the needs of different students (Evertson & Emmer, 2009).
To identify individual differences, teachers may look at many different sources for information. Sources might include classroom observations, work samples, school records, standardized testing, and reports from other teachers (Evertson & Emmer, 2009). If students with special needs are identified, discussions with the special education teachers and a review of official records provide the classroom teacher with information related to the student. With special needs students, it is not a matter of if accommodations will be made by the teacher, but how they will make accommodations for these students. Educating students with special needs in a regular classroom is widely accepted as the least restrictive environment (Hardin, 2008). Teachers must use care in reviewing data on students to prevent forming lower expectations for student achievement and behavior. Some students may have special behavior plans or special requirements regarding classroom management issues. Being aware of these plans helps the teacher address special requirements in developing a classroom plan.
Teachers are in a unique position to shape and mold attitudes and opinions of other students, staff members, and parents about students with special needs. Suggestions for communicating about students with special needs include:
- Do not focus on the special needs. Focus instead on issues that affect quality of life.
- Do not portray successful students with special needs as superhuman. This practice could impose false expectations to all students with special needs.
- Do not sensationalize a special need by saying "affected with", or "crippled with". More appropriate designation is "a person who has _______" or "a person with _______."
- Avoid generic labels such as "the retarded" and use "people with intellectual disabilities."
- Put students first, not their special needs.
- Emphasize abilities and not disabilities.
- Avoid euphemisms to describe special needs.
- Do not imply disease connected with special needs.
- Characterize people with special needs as active participants in society (Gargiulo, 2003).
Culture is an additional and integral part of student identity. Culture is learned from the family effortlessly and unconsciously and is well established by age five. How does culture effect behavior? It is important to understand cultural assumptions from both the part of the teacher and the student. Children from certain cultures expect an explanation for why they are required to do certain things. The teacher may consider this questioning disrespectful and rude rather than logical and assertive. Many African Americans who grow up with Ebonics express themselves directly and frankly playing with words and trading insults from an early age and transferring verbal expression to clothing and hairstyles. Parents are often strict and use directives and commands as a way to teach cultural standards (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2007). Knowing that some students may express themselves in different ways may help teachers plan for these differences and understand the most positive response. Studying and understanding different cultures allow the teacher to better understand why the child reacts and interacts in a school structure the way they do. Becoming culturally competent begins with honestly looking at one’s own biases and prejudices and is an important goal for all teachers.
Why does culture matter? Good teachers are not good by accident. Good teachers are deliberate and intentional and choose what they want students to do based partly on their understanding of the family and culture of their students and their own personal beliefs and experiences. When teachers have a basic understanding of cultural differences and similarities, they are more successful in maintaining self control and identifying alternate strategies when problems arise in the classroom (Kaiser, 2007).
Schools also have growing numbers of students who live in significant poverty, and these students need special understanding and adjustments by the teacher. Students who live in poverty need a strong and trusting relationship with the teacher and an environment that is safe and secure. The teacher is usually the primary motivator and the one who stresses the importance of school and the benefits for students who attend school regularly and work hard. The teacher is the one who helps the students navigate the hidden rules and expectations of the school. Young children from poverty may come to school unprepared to begin the learning experience. They may talk louder than other children and physically defend themselves against perceived threats. These students are more sensitive to nonverbal communication and less able to interpret verbal directions and explanations. They need more basic explanations demonstrated before they understand what the teacher expects. Children in poverty need to know that school expectations may be different from the neighborhood expectations. They may need specific directions for what to do when they enter the classroom or how to walk down the hall. Children in poverty need to be taught what to do if someone calls them an inappropriate name, what they may bring to school, how they talk to others, and other procedural activities. They will need support and encouragement as teachers redirect and re-engage the students in learning the school's expectations and procedures. When the children are disciplined, they often try to save face and try to imitate adults with whom they associate by grinning or laughing off the discipline. The teacher should take care not to humiliate or overreact. Protecting their dignity prevents their need for defiance and shows that the teacher is sensitive to the needs of the student. Some suggestions for working with children from poverty include:
- Making extra supplies and materials available.
- Teach procedures step-by-step. Practice and role play each procedure.
- Because students need a guide, tell them what they are supposed to do, why it is important, and provide a strategy for how to do it.
- Because many children bring problems from home, help them put off worrying about a problem until a specific time unless it a problem that must be addressed immediately.
- Assign a partner or buddy to discuss problems and solutions.
- Because emotions affect the student's ability to learn, allow students to write about or draw strong feelings. Seal the drawings or compositions in an envelope until the student wants to talk about them.
- Encourage positive self-talk to increase self control.
- Teach students to set goals for themselves.
- Allow students to help others when appropriate.
- When meeting with parents, show that you care about and appreciate the special gifts of each student. Focus on the positives before addressing the negative (Evertson & Emmer, 2009).
Teachers may want to list students assigned to their classroom who have factors that impact behavior, learning, socialization, or other factors. The following chart is an example of what a classroom teacher might do to better understand the make-up of the students in the classroom. It is not a complete listing of how needs should be addressed. It is a format to document individuality in the classroom:
|Student||Special Needs||Special Education||How Needs are Addressed in the Classroom||Comments|
|Johnson, Susan||Visually Impaired||Yes||
|Smith, Millie||Behavior Disorder||Yes||
|Johnson, Sam||Low SES||No||
Additional students could be added to this chart and could include learning styles, students who should not work together, students who prefer to work alone, and other factors that impact learning.
Understanding and appreciating student differences is one of the cornerstones of contemporary American society. If teachers develop a people-first approach to learning, then children become, first and foremost, people (Gargiulo, 2003).