Building Resilency in Struggling Students: 7 Key Ideas from Research

Countless numbers of students will be labeled with such terms as at-risk or high-risk for academic failure or inappropriate behavior. As educators, we strive to find interventions, strategies, and programs that will help these students be successful.

Resiliency can be defined as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or the ability to bounce back after facing a challenging situation. Helping students develop resiliency skills and attitudes has a positive effect on academic achievement, behavior, and long-term success in life (Hanson & Austin, 2003).

With this in mind, here are seven key ideas to help struggling students become resilient:

  • Avoid labeling children as “high-risk” or “at-risk.” Instead, refer to high-risk environments or situations that present challenging conditions. All children are capable of great things given the appropriate support and they tend to live up to or down to the expectations we set for them. (Ginsburg, 2011)
  • The person who delivers the program is more important than the program itself. There are numerous effective programs available that are designed to increase resiliency in students and loads of research about the effect of teaching students the skills and attitudes of resiliency. However, personal relationships and connections are the foundation of all effective programs. (Werner & Smith, 1992)
  • Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree. Students facing challenging situations or difficult home lives need to understand and believe that they can succeed. They need to know, through stories, examples, and role models, that with the right work ethic and commitment they can be successful. They need not be bound solely by their environment, background, or surroundings. (Jensen, 2009)
  • View children not as problems to be fixed but as individuals with strengths, dreams, and opinions. Traditionally schools have been places where the focus has been on identification, remediation, and correction of deficits. Indeed, schools need to know where students are lacking and work hard to help students master important skills and content. However, we also need to use the strengths, abilities, interests of students for them to truly thrive and overcome adverse situations. (Henderson, 2003)
  • Students must be actively involved in the life of the school and in their own learning. Resiliency isn’t developed being passive. Students need to connect to the people, the content, and the overall learning environment in order to thrive. Challenge students to track their own learning, create goals, and connect to other students with similar interests. In addition, all students should be exposed to challenging curriculum and high expectations. (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008)
  • The stuff of school can be cold and impersonal. The curriculum, the overreliance on testing, the schedules, and even the instruction can sometimes lead children to believe that school is something that is done to them. Take time to make personal connections with students, to laugh with them, and share stories to make school warm, fun, and personal. (Kohn, 1999)
  • Resilience isn’t constant in any of our lives. Resilience tends to ebb and flow throughout our lives based on current situations and challenges. We all have times in our lives where things are going well and times when things are tough. The resilient person is the one who can bounce back, learn, and thrive through the tough times. (Bernard, 2004)

Source: Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at


Math Computation: Promote Mastery of Math Facts Through Incremental Rehearsal

Incremental rehearsal builds student fluency in basic math facts (‘arithmetic combinations’) by pairing unknown computation items with a steadily increasing collection of known items. This intervention makes use of concentrated practice to promote fluency and guarantees that the student will experience a high rate of success.

Index cards & pen
Steps to Implementing This Intervention

In preparation for this intervention:

1. The tutor first writes down on an index card in ink each math fact that a student is expected to master-but without the answer. NOTE: Educators can use the A-Plus Math Flashcard Creator, a free on-line application, to make and print flashcards in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The web address for the flashcard creator is:
2. The tutor reviews the collection of math-fact cards with the student. Any of the math facts that the student can orally answer correctly within two seconds are considered to be known problems and are separated into one pile. Math facts that the student cannot yet answer correctly within two seconds are considered ‘unknown’ and collected in a second pile — the ‘unknown facts’ deck.
3. The tutor next randomly selects 9 cards from the pile of known math facts and sets this subset of cards aside as the ‘known facts’ deck. The rest of the pile of cards containing known math facts is put away (‘discard deck’), not to be used further in this intervention.
During each day of the intervention:

The tutor follows an incremental-rehearsal sequence each day when working with the student:

  • First, the tutor takes a single card from the ‘unknown facts’ deck. The tutor reads the math fact on the card aloud, provides the answer, and prompts the student to read off and answer the same unknown problem.
  • Next the tutor takes one math fact from the ‘known facts’ deck and pairs it with the unknown problem. When shown the two problems in sequence, the student is asked during the presentation of each math fact to read off the problem and answer it. The student is judged to be successful on a problem if he or she orally provides the correct answer to that problem within 2 seconds. If the student commits an error on any card or hesitates for longer than two seconds, the tutor reads the math fact on the card aloud, gives the answer, then prompts the student to read off the same unknown problem and provide the answer. This review sequence continues until the student answers all cards within two seconds without errors.
  • The tutor then repeats the sequence–taking yet another problem from the ‘known facts’ deck to add to the expanding collection of math facts being reviewed (‘review deck’). Each time, the tutor prompts the student to read off and answer the whole series of math facts in the review deck, beginning with the unknown fact and then moving through the growing series of known facts that follow it.
  • When the review deck has expanded to include one ‘unknown’ math fact followed by nine ‘known’ math facts (a ratio of 90 percent ‘known’ material to 10 percent ‘unknown’ material), the last ‘known’ math fact that was added to the student’s review deck is discarded (put away with the ‘discard deck’). The previously ‘unknown’ math fact that the student has just successfully practiced in multiple trials is now treated as a ‘known’ math fact and is included as the first item in the nine-card ‘known facts’ deck for future drills.
  • The student is then presented with a new math fact to answer, taken from the ‘unknown facts’ deck. With each new ‘unknown’ math fact, the review sequence is again repeated as described above until the ‘unknown’ math fact is grouped incrementally with nine math facts from the ‘known facts’ deck-and on and on.
    Daily review sessions are discontinued either when time runs out or when the student answers an ‘unknown’ math fact incorrectly three times.


Burns, M. K. (2005). Using incremental rehearsal to increase fluency of single-digit multiplication facts with children identified as learning disabled in mathematics computation. Education and Treatment of Children, 28, 237-249.

Blending Activities

Rolling Along
Have two children sit in rolling office chairs in front of the group. Present the children with a word containing two syllables. Say each syllable as you touch a child’s head, placing a definite pause between the syllables. Repeat the word with a smaller pause while pushing the chairs closer together. Ask the children to identify the word. When the word is identified, push the two chairs together.


Play the familiar game “I Spy” with a different twist.  For example, using the names of objects in the room, tell the children “I spy a p-e-n” and see if they can guess what it is.  If the children are able to segment words, have them take turns choosing things to spy.

Marshmallow Trains

Provide the children with several large marshmallows and toothpicks.  Instruct the children to push the toothpicks into the sides of the marshmallows.  Before giving the children a word, tell them how many marshmallows they will need for this turn.  Place each marshmallow a few inches apart.  As you say each syllable, touch each marshmallow with a definite pause in between.  As you continue to say the word with smaller pauses, move the marshmallows closer together.  When the children can identify the word, their marshmallows can connect and make a “train.”


How to Use Timers to Motivate Children

Timers are an excellent way to motivate your child or student(s) to complete tasks and follow directions.

Recommendations for Timer Use

Some children have difficulty working for prolonged periods of time without a break. They may get frustrated or mentally drained. I have seen children start to look around, talk, and play with items during prolonged periods of homework or classwork. This often leads to an adult telling them to get back to work before they are mentally ready. Sometimes the child becomes resistant and refuses to get back to work. Other times they will make statements such as “I am too tired.” “It is too hard.” “I am bored.” or “I don’t care about this.” If they do get back to work, they may work slowly, rush through the assignment, or not put forth their best effort.

So how can timers help?

1. Tell your child that they need to complete a certain amount of work and allow them to work towards a break.

For example, if your child is given 20 math problems for homework, you can say, “Complete the first ten problems and then take a five minute break to do something of your choice. Then do the next ten problems.” During the break, set the timer for five minutes and make sure the child can see it so they know exactly how much time the have left.

This is a great method for encouraging work completion because children like to work towards something fun. Many children also need a mental break and will work more effectively when they have the opportunity to take one. Using a timer takes the ownership away from the parent or teacher. The adult is not arbitrarily telling the child that the break is over. The timer dictates the length of the break. This leads to less resistance from the child.

If you are doing an open ended activity, such as studying or practicing an academic skill, try setting the timer for 10 minutes and saying something like “we will practice for ten minutes, take a five minute break to do something of your choice, and practice for another 10 minutes.” In this case you would use the timer to let the child know how long the practice/study session will last and how long the break will last. Some children need suggestions for the break (e.g., when you take your break do you want to draw or play a game on the computer). If you are offering suggestions, pick things that you know your child would want to work towards. You can adapt the number of minutes as some children can work for longer periods, some need to work for shorter periods, and some benefit from longer or shorter breaks. Work with your child/student to see how much time works best for him/her.

2. Some children benefit from timer games.

Some children are very easily distracted during tasks like getting dressed or copying down their spelling words. The child may look around, talk, or play with items rather than getting the task done. If the child is able to do the task competently but gets easily distracted, he/she may benefit from a “timer game.” Try it out to see if it benefits your child/student. For instance, you can tell your child that if she completes the task of copying down her spelling words before the timer goes off, she can engage in an activity of her choice when she is done working. You may want to time the fun activity she chooses if you want her to do something else afterwards (e.g., copy your spelling words before the timer goes off, play on the computer for 20 minutes, get ready for bed). If “timer games” make your child anxious there are other methods which may be successful. Not every strategy works for every child.

3. Use timers to facilitate transitions from one activity to the next.

Has your child ever resisted when you told him to put his toys away, get off the computer, or turn off the television? Young children or children with disabilities such as autism often have difficulty breaking away from something enjoyable when not prepared that their fun time is coming to an end. Using a timer is a great way to prepare your child for these situations. For example, you can set the timer and say “In five minutes turn off the computer and start your homework.”

Timers can also be used to encourage children to complete household chores such as dishes, putting toys away, and cleaning their rooms. Use the same strategies given above and apply them to household chores.

Teachers can also use timers in their classrooms with individual students or the whole class to encourage classwork completion, again using the same strategies described above.

It is important to note that some children do not have a concept of time or numbers. For these children visual timers work best. Try a red clock visual timer, as shown below.



With a red clock visual timer, children can see time running out as the red disappears.

For another visual timer option, try sand timers such as the ones shown below.



All of this great information came from:




Story Grammar Training

Appropriate Grade Level: 1st to 5th Grade

Purpose: Improve Reading Comprehension by providing a framework for learning and remembering information.

This intervention emphasizes the importance of metacognitive or active reading strategies to improve comprehension. It directs students’ attention on story structure by teaching them to ask five “wh” questions about the settings and episodes of the story.


  1. Overhead Projector (or SMARTboard)
  2. Transparency and individual student paper copies of the five “wh” questions or the Detective Reader, one per student.
  3. Three or four narrative passages.
  4. Poster board chart listing the 5 “wh” questions (optional)


  1. Tell the students that they are going to play a game to help them become better readers. The game is called “Reading Mysteries” and “Storyteller” and “Detective Reader” are the main characters.
  2. Tell them that the job of the Storyteller is to provide specific clues to enable readers to make predictions about the story based on past experiences.
  3. Tell them that their job as Detective Reader is to search for clues in the story, ask questions, and make predictions based on background knowledge.
  4. Read them a story.
  5. Introduce the five “wh” story grammar questions by using an overhead or poster board chart.
  6. Call on students to answer these questions and write the answers on the transparency and have them write the answers on their copies, too.
  7. Tell the students that to be good Detective Readers, they need to think of these questions during silent reading.
  8. Practice using the questions at least two more times as a classwide activity or in reading groups.
  9. Gradually eliminate the use of paper copies for the five “wh” questions.

Evaluation of Effectiveness:
Compare the students’ scores on comprehension questions or skill sheets or daily, weekly, or end-of-unit reading tests before and after implementation of this intervention.

Rathvon, N. (1999). Effective School Interventions. New York: Guilford Press.

Strategies for Impulsive Behaviors in the Classroom

  • Adopt a ‘Silent Signal’ (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). You can redirect overactive students in a low-key manner by using a silent signal. Meet privately with the student and identify for the student those motor or verbal behaviors that appear to be most distracting. With the student’s help, select a silent signal that you can use to alert the student that his or her behavior has crossed the threshold and now is distracting others. Role-play several scenarios with the student in which you use the silent signal and the student then controls the problem behavior. When you are able to successfully use the ‘silent signal’ during instruction, be sure to praise the student privately for responding appropriately and promptly to your signal.
  • Encourage Acceptable Outlets for Motor Behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). If the student distracts other students by playing with objects, substitute an alternative motor behavior that will not distract others. Give the student a soft ‘stress ball’ and encourage the student to squeeze it whenever he or she feels the need for motor movement. Or if the setting is appropriate, allow the student to chew gum as a replacement motor behavior.
  • Have the Student Monitor Motor Behaviors and Call-Outs (DuPaul & Stoner, 2002). Students can often change problem behaviors when they pay attention to those behaviors. Have the student monitor his or her motor behaviors or call-outs. First, choose a class period or part of the day when you want the student to monitor distracting behaviors. Next, meet privately with the student to discuss which of that student’s behaviors are distracting. Then, together with the student, design a simple distractible behavior-rating form with no more than 3 items (For a student who calls out frequently, for example, a useful rating item might be “How well did I observe the rule today of raising my hand and being called on before giving an answer? Poor – Fair – Good”.) Have the student rate his or her behaviors at the end of each class period. Make an effort to praise the student (a) for being accurate in rating behaviors, and (b) for any improvements that you see in the student’s behaviors over time.
  • Ignore Low-Level Motor Behaviors (Sprick, Borgmeier & Nolet, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Selective ignoring can be an effective teacher response to minor fidgeting or other motor behaviors. If the student’s ‘fidgety’ behaviors are relatively minor and do not seriously derail classroom instruction, the teacher should simply not pay attention to them.
  • Remove Unnecessary Items From the Student’s Work Area (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Students who tend to distract themselves and others by playing with objects behave better when their work area is uncluttered. Take away (or direct the student to put away) any items that the student does not need for the work assignment but might be tempted to play with (e.g., extra pens, paper clips).
  • Seat the Student Next to Distraction-Resistant Peers (Kerr & Nelson, 1998). One useful strategy for managing low-level motor behaviors is to seat the student next to peers who can generally ignore those behaviors. Rearrange seating in the classroom so that the student is sitting near peers who are good behavior models and are not readily distracted by that student’s minor fidgety movements or playing with objects.
  • Select a ‘Supportive Peer’ with the student (DuPaul & Stoner, 2002). Handpick a classmate who has a good relationship with the student but is not easily drawn off-task and appoint that student as a ‘helper peer’. Meet privately with the student and the helper peer. Tell the peer that whenever he or she notices that the student’s verbal or motor behavior has risen to the level of distracting others, the peer should give the student a brief, quiet, non-judgmental signal (e.g., a light tap on the shoulder) to control the behavior. Role-play several scenarios so that the peer knows when he or she can ignore the student’s low-level motor behaviors and when the peer should use a signal to alert the student to more distracting behaviors.
  • Use Brief, Discreet Reminders About Appropriate Behavior and Conduct (DuPaul & Stoner, 2002; Sprick, Borgmeier & Nolet, 2002). Provide students with brief reminders of expected behaviors at the ‘point of performance’, when they will most benefit from it. Consider using structured prompts such as the following for students who tend to blurt out answers: “When I ask this question, I will give the class 10 seconds to think of your best answer. Then I will call on one student.”


Reading Fluency – Listen to Me

The student will read with proper phrasing, intonation, and expression in connected text.
Book or passage
Choose text within students’ instructional-independent reading level range.
Tape player (Can use any audio recording device such as iPod app, FlipCams, etc.)
Cassette tape
Student sheet (Activity Master F.030.SS1)

Students read and record passages on tape.
1. Place the tape player and cassette tape at the center. Provide each student with a copy
of the text and student sheet.
2. The student practices reading the lines of text aloud with proper phrasing, intonation,
and expression.
3. Puts tape into the tape player, pushes record button, and reads the text.
4. Rewinds the tape and listens. Completes “first reading” section of student sheet.
5. Records second reading making improvements. Rewinds and listens to second reading.
Completes “second reading” section of student sheet.
6. May repeat a third time.
7. Teacher evaluation