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Usable Knowledge

How to Provide Help

When there's one of you and 20 of them, here's a tiered approach that lets students seek and find the support they need
teacher helping girl with school work

Understanding the appropriate way to seek out help is not a skill every student has. Some children, especially younger ones, meet every assignment with cries of “I need help!” — before trying independently. Others, especially older students and those struggling with self-esteem, might refuse assistance even when they are entirely lost.

Teachers want to provide help in a way that develops students’ self-awareness and self-efficacy, but that’s complicated, too. Most PreK-12 teachers have at least 20 students in their classroom at any given moment, and often more. When assignments get tough, it can feel impossible to give each student the individualized insight and tools she needs.

Three Tiers of Help

One solution to these dilemmas is for educators to weave “help” into the fabric of their classrooms. Teachers can set up structures, habits, and routines that allow students to think deeply about and access the support they need — which can also give teachers more availability to home in on individual students and skills. 

Educators can weave “help” into the fabric of their classrooms. They can provide students with general help resources; offer help that addresses specific concerns; and make individualized review and revision an integral part of the learning experience.

That approach centers on establishing three tiers of help resources, says Rhonda Bondie, a learning and teaching expert whose new book is Differentiated Instruction Made Practical: Engaging the Extremes through Classroom Routines. Those tiers — which she and co-author Akane Zusho call general help, specific help, and individualized help — give students a variety of strategies to deepen their learning.

Each tier can be appropriate for every student, depending on circumstances; general help resources are not only for high-achievers, nor is individualized help only for struggling students. All students can benefit from differentiated instruction.

What Does “General Help” Look Like?

General help resources are accessible to all students at all (or most) times. They are the everyday things in your classroom: information on the wall (directions for achieving goals, student work, word lists, number charts, routine directions), books (dictionaries, libraries, textbooks), materials and tools (calculators, number lines, bookmarks, vocabulary charts, timers, paper, pencil, markers), and people (peers and adults).

The idea is for all students to consciously understand that these resources are readily available. Most students use at least some of these resources periodically, whether intentionally (looking up a subject in a reference book) or unintentionally (reading vocabulary words on the wall as they search for ideas). By designating these materials as “general help resources,” teachers can show students that they are placed there specifically to help students learn — and that students can turn to them (without relinquishing agency or fearing embarrassment) when the first indications of “I need help” appear in their minds.

Practical tip: Set up a “help station” that students can visit anytime they’re working independently or in groups. The station can include computers showing videos on the subject, face-down answer sheets where students can check their work, and sample problems for students to study.

Supporting All Learners

Bondie and Zusho’s project All Learners Learning Every Day offers resources and best practices for differentiated instruction, as well as classroom routines on group learning, independent work, and engaging all students.

When Students Need Specific Help

Unlike general help, specific help is assigned by the teacher to some students, based on need. Bondie describes three types of specific help:

  1. Supports help learners practice the whole task in a simpler way. Think of a lifejacket: It enables people to practice swimming without the fear of drowning. Supports ensure students will complete the whole task without being hampered by learning challenges, and they can encourage academic risk-taking by guaranteeing that the student will succeed.
    For example: Some students may benefit from step-by-step instructions on how to complete an assignment. The steps ensure the students will meet all the requirements, and may make the assignment less stressful.
  2. Scaffolds help students develop one specific skill or part of a task without worrying about all the components. Think of a kickboard: It allows swimmers to rest their arms as they focus on kicking.
    For example: When students have to write a complex cause-and-effect statement, some may benefit from having the beginning of the statement written out for them. The starter words stop the students from worrying about their writing skills, and allow them to focus solely on their analytical skills.
  3. Extensions push students beyond the task at hand and deepen their learning. Think of goggles: They help swimmers progress to swimming underwater. Extensions can challenge students and help them see how their current work could be improved.
    For example: A separate set of criteria for an assignment can delineate what will make the students’ work “amazing,” rather than just complete and satisfactory.

Practical tip: Not all scaffolds are temporary. In some situations, students will use the scaffold until they are competent and ready to focus on other simultaneous tasks. But in other cases, the goal is for students to learn when to ask for the scaffold, so that she can independently complete a task.

Helping Students with Their Individual Needs

Individualized help acknowledges that each student comes to school with a unique set of experiences and understandings, therefore each need unique assignments. It is separate from an IEP or remedial work; it can be used both to review material or extend learning, and it can be valuable for students at every point on the achievement spectrum.

Like general help, the goal of individualized help is for students to better understand what they need and when they need it. It should be a regular part of a classroom’s routine, helping foster a culture where deep understanding, review, and revision are the norms.

Practical tip: The same assignment can be used to address different needs. For example, teachers can establish a “Mastery Monday” period in which students must repeat an assignment from the week that they either missed, need to increase fluency in, or misunderstood. This provides a routine opportunity for students to close gaps or extend their learning.

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