“This One Kid”

Marie-Claire Wonacott (March, 2023)

“I have this one kid that I just can’t teach”, “I have this one kid who doesn’t care about learning,” “I have this one kid who disrupts everyone else!” “I have this one kid who I can’t reach,”  “I have this one kid…” I know I’m not the only one who hears some version of these statements; they tell me that whoever is talking has tried everything they know to try, their toolbox is empty. Sometimes it means they are feeling frustrated, annoyed, exhausted, defeated. One way or another, they don’t know what else to do and they want ideas for what to do about “this one kid.”

Many of our students have lagging academic and/or social emotional skills. This is not unique to our “post-pandemic” education, though many teachers feel like such gaps are more frequent now than before. I don’t know if this is true, and honestly, I don’t know that it matters. What I do know is that teachers want to support and teach students, but don’t know what to do about “this one kid.”

We use the MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) model in our district, a data-driven problem solving framework which helps us identify student strengths and lagging skills to design appropriate instruction for all to succeed. As the Social Emotional Instructional Coach in my district, often I am a MTSS team member involved in conversations to create interventions that target the needs and lagging skills of these students. Often the stories about “this one kid” come after interventions that were not successful. “This one kid…” did not engage, or learn, or change. One of my favorite quotes is “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (often attributed to Albert Einstein, but in my research the credit is actually due to Rita Mae Brown.) I knew something in this process needed to change.

I’ve spent years as an SDT learner, practitioner and leader. I feel like the more time I spend with self-determination theory, the more I realize how we educators can use it. In my years as a MTSS team member, what we almost never did was involve “this one kid” in an intervention plan aimed at filling their basic psychological needs. Most often we designed their intervention for competence only, targeting skills where they were weak, and forgot it’s essential ALSO to meet “this one kid’s” need for autonomy and belonging. No matter what we are trying to teach, research is clear that if we don’t meet all the ABC needs—even if the student does learn the skills—it’s unlikely they will be intrinsically motivated to use the skills, which is truly the goal.

Shifts in systems are hard. They take time, intentionality and persistence. (They also need to meet adult’s ABC needs, but that’s the topic for another blog!) In our district, we started to shift our system by creating new guidance for intervention planning; it provides steps for the team to meet students’ autonomy and belonging needs, not just their competencies.

How can we meet student needs for autonomy in intervention planning? We begin by creating ways to solicit student voice within instruction. We weave in opportunities for students to make authentic choices every day, and we try to create a sense of student ownership over their actions and accomplishments. This means we begin interventions by explaining the goals and asking the student why these skills might be important to them. We take time to co-create group agreements for the intervention prior to instruction. We ask students how they want to be treated and how they want to treat others.  We give students an opportunity to influence the agendas for the intervention time.  How should we start the group? How should we end the group? The more control and choice we can give to our students, the more empowered they will feel not only to engage in the learning that we hope that they learn, but also that they to use the skills that we are teaching in the classroom, in the school, and in their life.

How can we meet student needs for belonging in intervention planning? As mentioned, we co-create group agreements and review them daily. We bring in opportunities to honor communal values and ethnic-racial identities, which is essential for trust and well-being. When we choose an instructor, we try to ensure that the person is someone that the student feels is caring, someone the student likes, trusts, and wants to work with. Upon starting new instruction we ask the instructor to take at least the first week to focus only on building community and trusting relationships with students, getting to know them, letting them get to know the instructor. Sometimes this means playing games or doing art projects, sometimes it means sharing, but the focus is developing a relationship in the same way that you would develop a relationship with a friend; it takes time. And that is OK. Daily we plan for instructional routines specific to belonging like welcoming rituals containing a greeting and a community building question or activity, and we end with an optimistic close. In addition, throughout instruction we find, build, and support multiple ways for students to work together.

For the most part we’ve always been good at meeting student needs for competence in intervention planning. We have continued to ensure that the instruction we are delivering is just the right fit, not too hard, not too easy. When it is an optimal challenge, the student can feel a level of success when they are able to internalize those skills and use them successfully. In addition, we often use a competence reflection for the optimistic close such as “What did you feel you did really well at today?” “What felt good in your learning?” “What felt important about our work together today? “

When we can design all instruction for the many of the “this one kids” in our schools from the foundation of meeting their need for autonomy, belonging, and competence, our chances of teaching the skills that we hope “this one kid” will have, learn, and most importantly-use, increases exponentially.

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