Making Stick-to-it-iveness Concrete
This is a struggling student’s nightmare.
Individuals with learning differences experience the world through a lens of vagueness. When the context and scope of an assignment or project is blurry, progress is difficult for learners to conceptualize.
Click here to read more about how vagueness presents significant barriers to struggling students’ academic achievement.
To move forward toward academic goals, neurodiverse students need to conceptualize the world in terms that are concrete to them. They need physical validation of their progress when they are moving in the right direction, as well as tools for course correction when they drift off track.
Unfortunately, learning environments rarely provide feedback on a student’s academic journey until grades come out. It is assumed that they will create their own tracking and accountability systems. When students struggle with executive functioning challenges, they have no idea how to create organizing systems that will work for them.
Operating from a vague understanding of what is expected of them, learners proceed through course requirements to the best of their ability, and attempt to extinguish the resulting academic fires as they ignite. Trying to manage an ongoing barrage of seemingly unattainable tasks is exhausting for struggling learners, and they can quickly burn out.
Resilience is a trait - the ability to bounce back from or adjust easily to misfortune, disappointment, frustration, or change. By contrast, perseverance is an action - getting back on the horse repeatedly. For neurodiverse students to benefit from coaching, they need to internalize qualities of resilience by learning how to get things done successfully. To accomplish this, they must make beneficial study habits ingrained by staying aware of their progress and receiving necessary scaffolding to persevere and stay on track.
The right academic coach can model both how students can make their progress tangible and how they can recover after a setback.
Two Ways to Help Students Become More Resilient: Concretize Progress and Concretize Support
- Making progress tangible through physical representation helps neurodivergent learners appreciate how successfully their endeavors are moving them toward their goals.
- When a student is mentored in resuming their efforts when things don’t go as planned, they can learn how to recover each time they encounter a setback.
1. Concretize Progress
Struggling students can develop resilience by making beneficial actions and results tangible in several ways:
- Make Academic Progress Sensory
- Celebrate Academic Progress
- Broadcast Academic Progress
Make Progress Sensory: Put a Pin on It
Students with learning differences have a hard time delaying gratification and can become easily discouraged by a mounting cascade of academic disappointments. They do not receive the same reinforcing brain chemistry rewards as neurotypical learners. In particular, their labors do not automatically produce the pleasurable dopamine boost that affects how their brains decide whether a goal is worth the effort.
Seeing no immediate result from all their hard work, they often give up in the middle of a task. In the moment, their efforts just don’t seem to matter that much.
Individuals with higher levels of brain dopamine are more likely to focus on the benefits of mental exertion, whereas those with lower levels instead emphasize the difficulty of a task, and its perceived cost.
Click here for author Erin Bryant’s excellent article on this topic in NIH Research Matters:
“Dopamine affects how brain decides whether a goal is worth the effort”
Struggling learners can overcome this biochemical lottery mishap by externalizing small achievements with physical representations of each success.
Make it Feel Ultra Satisfying to Get Something Done
Without dopamine readily on tap, neurodivergent learners need to artificially simulate gratification. Making even minor accomplishments concrete can be a satisfying way to personalize routine academic tasks and make them more enjoyable.
Some ways to make success physical, visible, kinesthetic:
- Drawing checkmarks on a list
- Crossing out items on a list
- Erasing to-dos off a chalkboard
- Affiixing colorful pushpins to a corkboard
- Placing colored magnets onto completed tasks on a magnetic board
- Creating a tracking method of your child’s own design
Your child may find some options more kinesthetically or visually pleasurable than others. Whichever system your child chooses to make evidence of their academic progress tangible, it should be something they find rewarding.
Celebrate Progress: Savor the Rewards
Students with learning differences often internalize negative messages that they are just not cut out for academics. It can be validating for them to receive an external indication that they did something well - something other people would be proud of.
Too often, neurodivergent learners scramble to just get their assignments in. Often, work is handed in after the deadline, and does not come near to representing what they are capable of achieving.
Short on the heels of the adrenaline rush may be a cloud of disappointment and self-judgment. This mental rollercoaster takes a toll on a learner’s self-confidence. Multiply this scenario by several dozen last-minute submissions over the course of semester, and the adverse impact on their self-esteem intensifies.
Even where the student experiences relief, they may also feel a mixture of shame and embarrassment, especially if they are aware of having made all the adults worried and stressed. They may have moments of comparing themselves negatively to peers who are held up as “model” students.
They may have worked hard, but it may be difficult for such a student to relish unadulterated pride in their accomplishments.
Celebrating large achievements, such as completion of an exam or a significant project, can help students reinforce a more successful academic scenario. Here are some examples:
- Receiving recognition from family and mentors
- Enjoying an evening at a favorite restaurant with friends
- Exploring something of interest in nature
- Visiting an amusement park, movie theater, youth art center, or children’s museum
- Choosing a long desired-gift
Planning something to look forward to can serve as a catalyst for students to maintain forward progress. Periodic reminders of this vision throughout the execution period can bolster waning momentum.
Broadcast Progress: Give Yourself a Shoutout
Whether your student identifies as an introvert or extrovert, social accountability can reinforce academic habits that will be beneficial to them:
- Family and community members can celebrate a student’s achievements online.
- Students can be guided to surround themselves with supportive peers and mentors who appreciate and validate their academic successes.
- They can become accustomed to sharing their accomplishments with people who are likely to cheer them on.
Getting social validation and support can help struggling students integrate the fruits of their hard work.
2. Concretize Support
Being resilient demands a lot of human character. If your student would have a hard time implementing any of the strategies described above, the good news is that they don’t have to. The skill of perseverance can be exercised and strengthened through academic support.
Neurodiverse learners can successfully develop greater resilience when they receive help getting back on the horse each time they fall off. Your child’s coach can help them develop the muscle to stay the course. For example, they can:
- Praise ongoing academic efforts, even when your student cannot see immediate progress.
- Encourage your child to request help, take a second stab at a challenging assignment, and continuously improve the quality of their work.
- Point out alternatives to solving a problem, and guide your child in testing out different ones until they come upon a solution.
- Help your student view an academic setback as a temporary blip, and encourage them to stay focused on their goals.
- Steer a struggling learner toward an academic come-back. Yes - given appropriate support, it really is possible to bounce back!
Concretizing progress and support reinforces the completion of baby steps that lead to gratification and pride. This is a great self-esteem builder for struggling learners! An academic coach can model for the student resilience-building practices that will benefit the student for years to come.
To learn more about how academic coaching can help your student develop greater academic resilience, book a free consultation now.
As an executive functioning coach and academic tutor, I specialize in helping individuals with learning differences exceed their goals for academics, organization, independence, and career direction.