By Andrew Hawk
When working with students with learning disabilities, teachers and school psychologists look for a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in students’ learning attributes. For example, a student may have a strong short-term memory, but long-term memory retrieval may be a challenge. Teachers help students learn how to use their strengths to overcome their challenges. This is not an easy task. Learning disabilities can be different from student to student, which is why the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with learning disabilities can vary from student to student.
One way adults can help students with learning disabilities succeed is by working with them to set short- and long-term goals. Here are some ideas that will help you jump-start the goal-setting process with your students.
Encourage Student Participation
To help increase students’ buy-in to the goal-setting process, give them an active role in writing their goals. Students of all ages can set goals. Teachers should act as facilitators to strengthen goals but should never dictate goals directly. If you reach a stalemate with a student who wants a goal to be too easy or nonsensical, try asking the student a series of reflective questions. An example would be, “How will this goal help your education?” If you still have no luck, let the matter rest for a day or two and then revisit it.
Set Long-Term Goals First
How long should a long-term goal be? This is debatable. A single school year works well. Personally, I do not set goals for periods of time longer than a year. I can understand wanting to help students set goals to graduate high school or go to college. However, unless the student is a senior in high school, I consider these to be beyond long-term goals. I would call them life goals.
Use Long-Term Goals to Set Short-Term Goals
Set short-term goals by breaking long-term goals into smaller pieces. For example, a student may have a long-term goal to write a paragraph with four to five complete sentences using correct grammar. This could be divided into three short-term goals. First, the student will learn and apply punctuation. Second, the student will construct complete sentences with a subject and a predicate. Last, the student will learn to construct a paragraph by first writing a topic sentence and then adding detail sentences. The student will reach the long-term goal by reaching all of the short-term goals.
Make Goals Reachable
Determining the difficulty level of student learning goals is a tricky business. The goals need to straddle the line of challenging but reachable. I have worked with colleagues who encouraged students to write very difficult goals. While these colleagues’ hearts were in the right place, they didn’t do their students any favors. If students never actually achieve any of their goals, it is easy for them to feel hopeless and give up on their education. Once this happens, students are at a higher risk of dropping out of school altogether.
Track Progress Regularly
If you set a short-term goal for a grading quarter, track progress at least bi-weekly. Tracking goals regularly helps you know if you need to adjust teaching strategies to help students meet their goals.
Provide Students with Feedback
Students feel encouraged when they see the progress they’re making toward their goals. If students are not making progress, provide positive and constructive feedback. If the student is working hard and you’re using effective teaching strategies, he or she may need extra repetitions to reach mastery. Tell the student to keep trying!
Revisit Past Goals
After you have broken the long-term goal into smaller short-term goals, you will start working toward the first short-term goal. Once you have reached this goal, you will go on to the next short-term goal. After you have finished the last short-term goal, you will be ready for the student to put all the pieces together to achieve the long-term goal . . . only to find they have not retained the learning from the first short-term goal. Don’t get frustrated. Help your students avoid these kinds of learning situations by periodically revisiting past goals for a refresher lesson.
Keep Your Baseline Assessments
Before you start working on any goal, you should collect a baseline assessment to ascertain the student’s starting point. Always save these assessments. Once a student has reached a goal, let the student review the baseline assessment. This really helps show students how much progress they have made. This is another great way to boost students’ confidence and give them some momentum as they begin a new goal.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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