Ways for teachers to recognize a young student is not learning

Teachers learn many strategies to recognize when a young student is not learning in their training, through observation and assessment , experience, collaboration and research. They consistently observe and assess their students, informally more often than formally. The collection of information from observations and assessments is of utmost importance in recognizing when a young student does not grasp a particular concept or lesson, or has other obstacles standing in his way.


Many of the first clues that a child is struggling come to teachers and support staff through observation. Students who are having a hard time often appear stressed or withdrawn. Classroom teachers will often note behavioral hints of a student’s anticipated struggle with a task before concrete evidence of learning difficulties appear. A student may display what appears to be a lack of ability or willingness to pay attention to the subject matter. She may employ avoidance techniques, like borrowing materials from others, taking frequent washroom breaks or claiming illness when it is time to work on a task that she might not understand. When a child is worried about not knowing how to do something, it can be as obvious as an expression on her face, a strained voice or tears in her eyes. It can also be absolutely hidden.

The best way to narrow down specific learning difficulties is through using various forms of assessment.

What is assessment?

“Assessment is a systematic process of looking at student achievement within and across courses by gathering, interpreting and using information about student learning for educational improvement”  – Jane Baillargeon, A.A.H.E.

Teachers consistently look for evidence of student learning, whether the assessments are done formally through tests, assignments and checklists or informally through observation and conversation. Quality, ongoing assessment practices will allow for various learning styles to be used to maximize student expression, confidence and potential. Assessments should be flexible enough to capture a snapshot of how a student is achieving at a specific point in time, as well as change over time. It is also important that assessment goals are clear and measurable and that the emphasis of the assessment is on the improvement of teaching and student learning. 

Does just one teacher identify learning difficulties?

Having more than one faculty member’s input is valuable in providing an objective assessment. One teacher may recognize something in a student that reminds him of something he has studied, read about, or a past student he has worked with who faced a similar struggle.  Another teacher may have taken a course or read about the struggles being observed.  Any of these details may hold a piece of the puzzle. Most schools today use a team approach to problem solving when a student is not learning, and have a School Based Resource Team (SBRT) or a similar resource group in place.

Consider this example of a grade two student who, in his mind, was not learning to write.

The grade two class room teacher and the special education resource teacher had been observing the student in class and had collected his written work. Using examples of grade-level expectations provided by the Ministry of Education as a reference, they looked through his journal entries. Beyond his large, dark, mainly upper-case letters, they noticed that he consistently wrote the word ‘this’ with the letters in this order ‘isth’. The classroom teacher had not seen a student do this before, but the special education teacher remembered a student that she had taught in the Reading Recovery program who wrote ‘other’ like this: ‘toher’. It was a visual processing issue. That child was now in grade four and going through formal testing for a learning disability. What helped that child when he was in grade one was using magnetic letters to manipulate the chunks of the word ‘oth-er’ and teaching him to apply the principle to other words like it (moth-er, broth-er), then to make the connection to other two syllable words he already knew (go-ing, play-er, etc).

This part of the assessment used information from the student’s writing with the goal of finding evidence of where the child’s frustration was coming from. The classroom teacher had noticed avoidance, a negative attitude towards writing and a minimum amount of written work being produced. She also noticed that he avoided drawing, held his pencils tightly, broke them often and sometimes ripped through the page when drawing, coloring and writing. He pressed so hard that his blank journal pages were indented three pages ahead. After close observation and speaking to the student and his parents, it was apparent that his grip on his pencil was causing pain through his hand, wrist and up his arm. A referral to the occupational therapist was made.

This kind of informal initial assessment happens every day in schools across Canada and the United States. Teachers use these and many other methods to assess their students and find those who are struggling or not learning certain skills or concepts. It takes the thoughtful observation of a trained eye, the collaboration of trusted colleagues, ongoing assessment and steps to secure further support to ensure that every child is learning, every day.  

A child who is not learning, is a child who is frustrated and in need of support.