August 13, 2019

Focused teacher attention on student learning issues can help start the school year off right

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — If a son or daughter is heading back to school, now is the time for some positive reinforcement. Especially if he or she ended the last school year struggling in a given subject.

So says a Purdue University education leader Nancy Marchand-Martella, who has studied support systems for students and at-risk learners.

Marchand-Martella, the Suzi and Dale Gallagher Dean of the College of Education, says it’s important to take a proactive approach in helping students avoid starting off the academic year poorly.

“We look at ways on how to prevent that from happening in the first place,” she said. “We try to be as intentional as possible with our instruction so that students get it the first time instead of waiting until they make so many errors that it becomes engrained and hard to get rid of.”

Marchand-Martella said a multi-tiered system of supports works by first identifying any initial academic struggles students may encounter.

For students who experience difficulty from one year to the next, the system utilizes a second tier of support that includes working on the specific problem. That work can include 20-30 minute small group studies on the topic as well as tutoring using peer buddies.

The system avoids the “wait to fail” approach of letting students struggle to such an extent that they end up qualifying for special education services before receiving individualized attention and assistance.

“When students struggle, they get help immediately instead of waiting for them to qualify for special education services,” she said. “Thirty minutes each day of strategic intervention may be enough support for the ‘light bulb’ to go on for these students.”

Marchand-Martella said many children exhibit behavior problems because of academic deficits and frustration. Taking this kind of proactive approach helps ensure that students don’t feel that way.

She also dismisses the idea of simply holding back a child struggling with school, noting the decision takes the student away from the comfort that comes from their friend base.

In the end, Marchand-Martella said positive feedback keeps children enjoying school at the start of the year.

“The best way to do that is by being very positive with students and looking for ways to praise them when they are following expectations in the classroom,” she said. “Typically, when you look for the positives, you get students who will work even harder. You’re catching them being good – when they’re doing something the right way.” 

Writer: Brian Huchel, 765-494-2084,

Source: Nancy Marchand-Martella, 765-494-2336,

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