Barriers on the Path that Connects The Learner with the Learning

Barriers on the Path that Connects The Learner with the Learning

January 18, 2017
By
Lois Rowe, Director, CHS Senior School

Of the many complexities facing schools in 2016, the topic of wellness or well-being is one that educators look to governments, clinicians, researchers or outside agencies to provide direction on how to support students through difficult times while not straying beyond what is appropriate within the scope of a school. Laws, standards, practices and guidelines, while useful in defining roles and responsibilities in broad contexts, are not prescriptive and, therefore, when it comes down to case-by-case considerations, it is the teachers and administrator in a school who must interpret these documents and make decisions that weigh what is in the best interests of the student as well as the school community. Without a framework to guide the decision, the way forward can seem cloudy. Is there a lens through which a school might see its way to know when the right support for a student is within the walls of a school and when it is time to direct the student and her family to outside resources?
 
In its simplest form, the role of a school is to connect the ‘learner’ with the ‘learning’. From time to time, a barrier may present that impedes or blocks the path between the learner and the learning. These barriers take on different forms; however, they generally fall into one of the domains of well-being: cognitive (i.e., learning disability), physical (i.e., illness or injury), social (i.e., friendship challenges), emotional (i.e., adjusting to a change in family structure or dynamics), and mental (i.e., anxiety or depression). Challenges in any one or combination of these domains accompany some students to school each day and it is, therefore, in the school’s best interest to proactively be prepared through a comprehensive strategy.
 
The first tier of a support strategy is a knowledgeable faculty. Educators in 2016 must stay current on how stressors in any of the domains of well-being reveal themselves in a school setting. Including topics related to well-being as a regular feature of yearly professional development, as a standing item on the agendas for staff meetings, or through the sharing of current articles results in teachers having an increased skill to recognize the early signs of a struggle and greater confidence in supporting students through proven intervention strategies. In addition, because it is the teachers who spend time with students on a regular basis, they are most likely to be the ones who, once knowledgeable, are alert to the warning signs.
 
The strategy to address barriers between the learner and the learning begins with the educated professionals and extends to systems. Deliberate tracking of attendance patterns, changes in behaviour or habits, (dis)engagement in curricular or co-curricular experiences, strained peer relationships, and/ or declining academic success will identify students who might otherwise slip between the cracks. Through scheduled times for data review combined with ‘student focused meetings’ attended by all teachers, concerns are revealed. At this tier of support, identification is key so that students can be gently invited to seek assistance. The second tier of support is therefore a securely strung and finely woven safety net.
 
An important consideration for a school to address is whether or not the barrier between the learner and the learning can be knocked down or is firmly in place and needs to be navigated by going over or around this impediment. Determining the answer to this distinction forms the third tier of a support strategy. Having some expertise within the school to advise on strategies (cognitive), counsel (social, emotional), or craft a ‘return to play/ learn’ plan (physical, social, emotional, mental) are the first line of barrier removers. This tier is one of triage where a short term solution knocks down the barrier, thus connecting the learner with the learning.
 
The community of qualified experts beyond a school community but within reach forms the fourth and final tier of support. This support is where a strategy would turn when the barrier requires more than triage. These trained individuals are out there and a school with a strategy will cultivate a relationship whereby the school can access directly the support it requires or, more often is the case, be the conduit for students or parents to arrange the support required to find a way around or over the barrier. Working in sync, resources within the school and those beyond can ensure the strategies or therapies being developed by the outside experts are being supported when the student is in school. With a cooperative relationship in place, barriers become named, recognized at a distance and, through accommodation, navigated.
 
In summary, in every school, there are learners facing barriers to learning. These barriers take on many forms and can be either removed or managed; however, the efficiency with which a challenge is addressed depends on a school having a support strategy in place. Through four tiers of support from increasing knowledge, to structured safety net check-ins, triaged support and connections with a network of outside resources, schools have a framework upon which the unique needs of all learners will be supported as they travel down the path that connects the learner with the learning.
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