Essential Qualities for Educators Working With Students Who Have Learning and Behavior Challenges

The start of a new school is just around the corner, and I’ve found myself thinking about my educator colleagues who are preparing for the year ahead with their students.  Those who especially come to mind are the educators who will be working with students who have learning and behavior challenges but feel ill equipped to support them.

There can be a lot of pressure in school environments, with more responsibilities and expectations put on educators all the time.  Those who don’t have a formal background in special education or experience working with children who have more significant symptoms may feel anxious, intimidated, and even incompetent.  If you’re feeling that way I’d like to let you in on a secret – who you are as a person and educator is much more important than what you know.  Some people think that taking classes, learning specialized strategies, and having years of experience with special needs students is required to effectively work with this population.  I’ve spent many years teaching and consulting, and I can say with certainty that specialized knowledge and experience is helpful but not the most important thing!  The person you are and the mindset you have in relation to these students will get you farther than any book or specialized strategy ever will.  In that vein I share with you some qualities I believe are essential for educators who desire to effectively engage students with learning and behavior challenges:

Compassion – It’s really hard to have a brain that doesn’t always cooperate and work well!  Even in their most challenging moments, no student desires to create difficulties or experience failure.  Maintaining a mindset of compassion can help us move beyond our instinctual frustration, anger, or fear and into a more helpful space of empathy and support for a person who is struggling.

Positive Focus – Remind yourself, and your students, of the things that are going well.  Take advantage of any opportunity to provide positive feedback.  Not only will this help your students feel more confident and successful, it will help you stay in a mindset of positive thoughts about them.  You will also find that these brief positive engagements build a bond of trust and strengthen your relationship with these children.

Problem Solving – When we approach challenges with a problem solving mindset it allows us to focus on how we can achieve desired outcomes, rather than just spinning in frustration.  Modeling problem solving is very beneficial for these students, most of whom lack problem-solving skills.  They tend to respond to difficulties with upset and avoidance because they do not know how to think their way through any other type of response.  Problems provide us an opportunity to not only develop workable solutions, but to model this for students who desperately need these skills.

Flexibility – Sometimes we need a plan B, C, or D when working with students who have learning and behavior challenges!  Staying flexible is critical, especially with students who tend to be rigid and inflexible.  Our willingness to find new approaches, alternatives, and come up with a new plan is key to avoiding power struggles and allows everyone to move forward more effectively.

Perseverance – Some days will go better than others, but perseverance will get you through them all.  You may not see the results of your efforts right away, but over time there will be positive growth if you stick with it.  Continuing to support the child, even on the tough days, will help build trust and a strong relationship.  These children need to know that we care about them and will press on with them, even when things aren’t going well.

Openness – Students with learning and behavior challenges can teach us as much as we teach them.  Be open to the experience and learning that can come from engaging with these children.  No one can be expected to have all the answers or solutions to difficulties that arise.  We should be open and honest with students, parents, colleagues, and ourselves when we aren’t sure what to do.  Openness is an excellent starting point for learning and growth together.

I hope this speaks to those of you who may be feeling unprepared to work with students who exhibit challenges in the school environment, or those of you who have been struggling with whether you can really do this kind of work.  While professional development and experience are helpful, the qualities you posses as a person and educator can take you far.  If you are able to be compassionate, focus on the positive, problem solve, maintain flexibility, persevere, and maintain a mindset of openness then you have all the tools you need to move these children forward.  May you and your students be blessed with many wonderful, challenging, enlightening, and growth-filled moments on your journey together this school year!

What do you think of my list?  Do you agree that these qualities are important?  Are there additional qualities you would add to the list?  Share your thoughts with me in the comments below!

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