Closing the Gaps: How Expectations Become Reality

What began as “the achievement gap,” later called the “opportunity gap,” is now being referred to by some as “the value gap.” While there is much controversy around each of these terms for various different reasons, the value gap is perhaps the most provocative because of its assumed implications. Essentially, a value gap is a noticeable distinction in academic achievement between those who value education and those who do not. More and more educators are finding that students who value education, regardless of where that intrinsic motivation comes from, are statistically higher achieving and more successful in their education. Like motivation, however, seeing the value in one’s education is unique to each individual—there is no singularly universal way to get children to see the value in education.


To value something means to recognize its worth or importance. Perhaps the reason that some students find it difficult to see the value in education is because it’s not something that provides instant gratification—the pay off, figuratively and quite literally, happens down the road. It may seem tricky, but there are ways to help even the most reluctant students see how their education will be of value to them later in life.


We take it for granted

One way to help students recognize the importance of education is to provide examples of ways that other people have fought to have access to such an education. From the push to integrate schools during the civil rights movement, to the example that Malala set in the Middle East so that girls could have the right to go to school, highlighting the lengths that others have gone to for the right to learn shows students how priceless education truly is. By recognizing the fact that education is a privilege, a gift not given freely to the rest of the world, children begin to recognize its inherent value.


It can never be taken away

The common adage, “knowledge is power,” might be a little cliché, but it is true nonetheless. Education is the only form of currency that, no matter how much you use it, never decreases. Part of its value comes from the fact that whatever you learn becomes a part of you. It becomes a permanent, undeniable asset. By showing students that learning is a limitless form of wealth, they begin to see how that “wealth of knowledge” can make a concrete difference in their lives.


It separates you from the pack

Parents and educators can appeal to the natural competitive instincts that many teens have by discussing the fact that education is often a defining factor that distinguishes one person from another. GPA, honors courses, graduation rankings, college acceptance—all of these figures contribute to the common notion that education is something of great value. If nothing else, talk to students about the merits of academic achievement and competition.


It’s more than just “book smarts”

Often, students who do not see themselves as natural-born learners or gifted intellectuals become discouraged by the academic arena—to them, school can seem like an exclusive club that they haven’t “tested into.” However, it is critical to emphasize how education is about more than being a straight A, book smart, honor roll, highest percentile scholar. Some of the most successful people in history did not fall into that gifted and talented category, in fact. Countless artists, inventors, performers, and entrepreneurs have paved the way using skills they learned in school that were not necessarily academically-related. What students don’t often recognize is that, in addition to academic achievement, there is also great value is social-emotional intelligence. Recognizing that schooling is about building communication skills, problem solving skills, creative reasoning, time management, independence, accountability—the list goes on and on—can help students internalize the belief that education has lasting value beyond the report cards and diplomas.

LE Does It Best: How To Make the Most of Tutoring Time

As discussed in part I, the educators at Learning Essentials (LE) are fully committed to helping every learner achieve his or her goals. The adage, “It takes a village,” truly grounds our methods and mindset around education. We believe that, with the help of our “playbook,” students and families experience academic support through collaboration and communication. Below are just a few of the ways in which LE tutoring sessions incorporate best practices.

  • Before learners are matched with a tutor, the executive director will conduct an intake meeting to assess the student’s learning style, preferences, strengths, and areas of need. This allows for the creation of a comprehensive learning plan, which will ensure that the best supports are put into place from the start. 
  • While we do not diagnose specific learning disabilities, our team is equipped to observe students’ learning profiles and connect families with the necessary professionals. We aim to ease the stress and confusion surrounding unique learning needs by providing academic tutoring, coaching, brain camps, parent workshops, and academic consulting. 
  • With collaboration from parents and any other necessary supports (teachers, pediatricians, behavior specialists, etc.) the team at Learning Essentials will develop learning goals and an academic “playbook” for the student. This playbook is a uniquely individualized approach to ensure that each learner receives customized instruction to work towards his or her personal best.  
  • Our advanced-degreed, highly qualified educators will work to provide learning support for any and all areas of need through one-to-one tutoring sessions. We address every aspect of a student’s educational needs, from medical needs and learning disabilities to psychological referrals and communication between the schools and families. It is always our goal to advocate for each learner and help him or her to simultaneously develop autonomy.
  • Because communication is a best practice for student success, parents are not only part of the initial collaboration, but are also thoroughly kept in the loop after every tutoring session. LE tutors will submit detailed reports about the session goals, materials used, visible progress, and plans for next steps. With parent permission, tutors are also encouraged to communicate with the child’s teachers to ensure full support by adapting materials and differentiating instruction to meet the student’s unique needs.  
  • Unlike traditional tutoring services, LE tutors strive to not only address academic and study skills, but also to provide learners with methods for boosting motivation and develop an intrinsic desire for learning independently. We essentially aim to empower students by “training” them how to learn.
  • Because the LE team is comprised of educational professionals, such as certified MCPS teachers, case managers, educational psychologists, language-based experts, experts in executive functioning, literacy coaches, and applied behavior therapists, we are able to fully support families with cutting-edge methods for instruction and research-based strategies to develop creativity, confidence, and positive study habits.
  • As part of our approach for consistent communication, LE will not only work to help students reach their learning goals, but will also evaluate and discuss progress along the way. In measuring progress, tutors are able to modify and adapt instructional techniques and strategies as a best practice for learning. By individualizing each “playbook,” students’ needs are addressed in a personal but fluid fashion, allowing for flexibility and creative approaches to learning.

Rainy Day Fine Motor Work

When a summer day is not so summery, parents are often left with minimal options for entertaining younger children until the rain lets up. While technology is the obvious default go-to, it’s still a good idea to have some tricks up your sleeve. Anytime that you can disguise learning as an engaging indoor game or activity, children thrive with that challenge.


Activities to build fine motor skills:

  • Two simple items from a craft store can help to boost your child’s fine motor skills. Packs of multicolored beads and thread, yarn, or jewelry strands are all you need to encourage dexterity and creativity. This is also an opportunity to take a hands-on approach to patterns. You can extend the activity by beading alongside your child and asking him or her to identify which color comes next in your pattern. You can also use this activity as a conversation starter about your own favorite colors, birthstones, your alma mater colors, the order of the colors in the rainbow, etc.
  • Challenge your children to an ice cube tray race in which you sort small items into the different cubes using tweezers. You can use spare coins/change, beads, different types of dried beans, multicolored confetti, M&Ms, old buttons, etc. Using tweezers adds to the challenge and helps to build the smaller muscles in the hand and fingers that are used for writing.
  • Chinese checkers is another great game that helps to build fine motor skills. In fact, anything that requires children to pick up and place marbles in a specific area builds those motor skills.
  • Stickers and sticker books that ask children to arrange the stickers into specific scenes on the page are great for dexterity as well. This not only strengthens the tiny muscles in their fingers, but it also promotes logical and ordered thinking. For instance, a scene in the sticker book might require them to put the police officer in the correct car, match the hair stylist with the proper tools, put domesticated animals in the house while the others go in the barn, place the flowers in the empty flower pot, etc.  
  • Keep busy hands moving by making a paperclip chain. You can also use different colored or different patterned paper clips to create a chain with an alternating pattern.
  • Use clay or playdough to roll, knead, twist, and cut shapes or “ingredients” to make playdough pizza. Just remember, no eating!
  • Create your own kiddie putting green using large styrofoam sheets, golf tees, and plastic golf balls. The tees stick straight down into the foam sheets, which allow kids to practice placing and balancing the plastic golf balls gently. As children practice swinging and hitting the plastic golf balls, they are getting practice with hand-eye coordination as well.
  • Use eye droppers and food coloring to turn cups of water into color-changing liquid art. The eye dropper builds fine motor skills, but the activity also teaches children about primary and secondary colors. You can also extend the activity by asking your child to predict what color would result from dropping a blue dot of food coloring into red water, yellow water, etc.

Games such as Jenga, Lincoln Logs, Legos, and Operation help children with motor skills while keeping the fun and competition in the forefront. Jenga requires children to practice precision, balance, strategy, and patience, all while keeping a steady hand. As always, you can also use games to teach accountability and good sportsmanship by requiring the “loser” to clean up the fallen blocksbut remind them that it’s all in fun!     

Vacation Learning

Summer vacation offers students an opportunity to unwind and relax after what was likely a rigorous school year of learning. While of course they have earned their leisure time, students can intuitively engage in countless learning opportunities over the summer, especially when families are enjoying vacations or day trips. These visits, whether weeks long or merely a day, countries away or in our own backyards, offer different modes of learning than what students see in school. The lessons might not necessarily be rooted in academics, but the various exposure to new things that children have while on vacation offers life lessons spun into new experiences–they also help to cultivate an appreciation for learning through intrinsic motivation.


Middle/High School Ages

An accessible trip to a place that is practically in our own backyards, the nation’s capital is the obvious choice for a day trip or weekend excursion with adolescents.  

    • With numerous museums, and many of them free to the public, DC can keep intrigued history buffs busy for days on end. Allow your child to choose his favorite topic or era and help him explore the vast exhibits, speakers, collections, artifacts, and stories. Whether you end up browsing our nation’s most prized historical documents at the National Archives, or checking out the history of aviation at air and space, the point is to allow children to immerse themselves in new experiences and expand their knowledge of their favorite topics or fields.
    • The National Zoo is another nearby option for animal-lovers looking for a day trip. The zoo offers several student-centered camps and special exhibits throughout the summer as well for those learners who would like to get up close and personal.
    • A little further north, families can explore the historic battlefield of Gettysburg, where Civil War enthusiasts can tour on horseback, watch reenactments, participate in ranger camps, and take a ghost tour.  
    • Heading to the beach? Check out a new outdoor game or water sport. Bocce, badminton, shuffleboard, mini golf, paddle boarding, and kayaking—the list is endless when it comes to physical activities and games for the beach. These activities teach adolescents about crucial life skills, such as patience, teamwork, endurance, eye hand coordination, game strategy, etc.
    • Beach vacations offer plenty of opportunities for kids to interact with marine life and the surrounding natural environment as well. Even a leisurely activity such as flying a kite or collecting seashells and sea glass can spur a conversation about ocean tides, mollusks, sea life conservation efforts, and lift/drag and aerodynamics.
    • Encourage a new hobby or interest that coincides with the vacation. Traveling to a notoriously great food city or hotspot for cultural cuisine? Try looking for a cooking class for the family. Try out different methods or styles of photography; then make a scrapbook of vacation memories. Spending time in the mountains? Consider looking into wilderness training or a survival skills course. Kids can learn about how to use a compass, identify edible vs. harmful plants, practice geotagging, how to successfully build and start a campfire, how to spot and identify animal tracks—again, the list goes on and on!
    • If you are going to be in the car or taking a long flight, stock up on literature for the kids, but make sure it’s something that they would actually want to read. Even a sports or fashion magazine beats no reading at all. If your child is more into puzzles or brain games, pick up a book of crosswords, word searches, Sudoku, Rebus puzzles, or trivia questions. Almost all of these items are available digitally through a smartphone app as well.
    • If you’re visiting a new city or region that is rich in music or art, create a playlist that represents that genre of music. Again, the idea is to expose adolescents to new cultures, ideas, and experiences.

Promoting Self-efficacy

Because of the major focus on “growth mindset” in today’s educational world, it only makes sense to discuss self-efficacy alongside it. The two go hand-in-hand. Students with a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, believe that, through effort and tenacity, they can improve in their endeavors. Similarly, self-efficacy refers to one’s confidence in his/her ability to execute specific actions in order to attain a goal or arrive at a desired outcome. Essentially, self-efficacy promotes the idea that learning is all about setting your mind to something and going for it, no matter the obstacles. This level of grit and self-confidence is crucial to young learners, which is why it is imperative that teachers help students to develop self-efficacy. Below are suggested instructional strategies and practices can actually help to promote self-efficacy in the classroom.


  • Ask students to talk through and/or write down their method of arriving at an answer or conclusion. This deliberate level of analysis requires students to tap into their reasoning on a metacognitive level—they are asked to think about their own thinking. In being able to articulate why they arrived at a certain answer, students are subconsciously building confidence and developing self-efficacy.
  • Create lessons that promote Socratic dialogue and ask students to question what they are learning, reading, and exploring. This promotes a level of agency over the learning; they are no longer passively receiving the information, they are asked to engage in it and critique it.
  • Design activities and projects that allow for student choice. When students are invested in what they are researching, their exploration becomes more immersive—they more readily dive into the material and gain confidence while doing so. Choice also boosts motivation to succeed, reaffirming one’s self-efficacy once the goal is met.
  • Require students to “create the test” as a review or practice before an assessment. Then, if students’ sample questions are appropriate, include those student-created questions or concepts on the actual exam. Again, this practice helps to hand over the control; the teacher is not the only “keeper of the knowledge.” Instead, students are also given a hand in measuring their own learning.
  • Utilize reflection forms or surveys to practice error analysis and boost students’ self-confidence for the next task. Reflective questions after an exam, essay, or project that hone in on a student’s genuine level of effort and preparation help to show students how they hold the keys to their own success. Include questions on the survey such as, “How did you expect to do?” or, “Based on the time, effort, energy and focus that you put in, did you perform the way you anticipated?” These reflective questions encourage students to think about the way that their preparation or lack thereof has a direct impact on their success. Over time, they will recognize a sense of control over their education, which ultimately builds self-efficacy.
  • Consider creating student portfolios, in which students organize and track their work throughout the year. It is important that students have a clear view of how they have progressed over the course of the school year and how they can set goals for growth in the future. Students also develop self-efficacy by critiquing their own past assignments. Teachers might consider asking students to respond to teacher feedback to include in the portfolio as well. That is, after reflecting and seeing the feedback, how would the student modify the work or assignment?


Promoting Academic Integrity

With the recent embarrassing mess that is the college admissions scandal, also known as “Operation Varsity Blues,”  today’s youth are getting a front row seat to watch the age-old adage come to life: cheaters never win. With high profile celebrities, executives, and elite colleges and universities involved, a spotlight has now landed on the intersection of where wealth and power meet educational opportunities. Common questions and considerations naturally arise when scandals surrounding the misuse of power and money are brought to light, especially in the realm of education—which some consider to be the “great equalizer.” All in all, most people simply wonder What happened to academic integrity and the value of achievements based on merit?


Of course, this current admissions scandal involves academic dishonesty on a grand scale, but anyone who tries to dupe the educational system likely has the same motive—that is, the need to avoid any potential failures. But what can we do to combat this urge to succeed and prove ourselves at any cost?


  • Parents and teachers should stress the importance of mastery learning, as opposed to performance learning. Mastery learning puts knowledge, growth, and personal improvement on a pedestal. Conversely, performance learning is driven by grades, points, levels, and rank. Essentially, we’re looking at intrinsic motivation (mastery) vs. extrinsic motivation (performance). While there is nothing wrong with the desire to prove oneself, the focus for performance learners becomes, “How can I make sure that I look the best, score the highest, and outrank my competitors/peers?” In this type of surface-level learning, knowledge isn’t the prize; the status acquainted with being “the best” becomes the end goal. Instead, parents and educators can take the following steps:
    • To encourage mastery learning, parents should talk with children and teens about how learning can have a profound and vital impact on their future. Talk about the opportunities and doors that education can open.
    • Explain how learning another language isn’t simply about AP credits or raising one’s GPA. Another language allows you to connect with others, verbally and culturally. As a skill, bilingualism is an asset in any workplace. Speaking another language also becomes a practical skill when travelling, either for work or pleasure.
    • Discuss how certain knowledge, skills, and abilities can translate into other areas of expertise. For instance, the dexterity and nimbleness that a surgeon’s job requires could be developed or improved by learning to play a string instrument or painting/drawing. Attorneys, researchers, and corporate executives will need to write proficiently for many different purposes. Seeing how this knowledge is applicable to a future career helps students to invest in what they are learning.


  • Present the “why” of learning to show that there is a greater purpose for these academic lessons and methods. Why do we learn about women’s suffrage, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement? It’s not merely to ace the history exam at the end of the semester. We may not remember the exact dates or famous landmarks involved, but the more significant take-away comes from the fact that, to know better is to do better. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot grow from our mistakes.
    • Teachers and parents can hone in on this mindset by discussing the significance of the information that we learn in school. Where would we be without the people that stood up against injustice? What would we be missing out on if people hadn’t taken risks? What advancements have helped to improve our planet, our daily endeavors, life-expectancy, etc.? To cheat on an exam about the Constitution is to rob yourself of this important knowledge regarding your guaranteed rights.
    • Even for the younger learners, it is important that students know how they will rely on these skills later on. For instance, my multiplication flashcards were the bane of my existence in elementary school, but had I known how much I’d rely on that basic skill, for everything from cooking and grocery shopping, to choosing credit card options and monthly budgeting, I’d be much more inclined to study intently before peeking at a peer’s quiz sheet.


  • Discuss what plagiarism really means, specifically highlighting the fact that this is someone’s intellectual property.
    • Students are probably aware of their school’s or district’s policy on plagiarism. Depending on how certain schools wish to handle it, students who plagiarize could face disciplinary action ranging from a failing grade to expulsion. However, in college, plagiarism becomes a much bigger offense. Let them know that even inadvertent plagiarism can be a huge issue for universities.
    • Parents and educators should be sure to talk to high schoolers about the serious consequences that they may face if they plagiarize any part of a college assignment. Students who plagiarize at the college level will face several consequences. They may be forced to drop the course and take it again, which essentially means paying to take it twice. Colleges may also decide to review the student’s academic record, including previous work and essays. Previous papers might be scrutinized to see if this level of academic dishonesty is a pattern. Many colleges dismiss the student all together—no money back guarantee!
    • Talk with students about how, just like movies, music, and art are protected under copyright laws, published material is protected as well. If someone plagiarizes another’s material, then happens to benefit financially from that plagiarized work, legal issues may ensue. Copyright infringement can result in damages, penalties, and even jail time.

Scrabble as an Instructional Tool

April 13th is the official day to celebrate every word-lover’s favorite board game—Scrabble! This beloved game-cabinet staple has been around since the 1930s, but its relevance in the classroom is eternally apparent. Not only Scrabble, but countless other board games and childhood favorites, can also be used to support learning and spur student engagement. Browse the ideas below to see how Scrabble could be incorporated into your own learning environment, whether it be in the classroom or at home.



  • Use the letters as a form of equity sticks or calling sticks. Each student will be assigned a letter. When that letter is drawn, that student is selected to participate, read aloud, share their example, etc. Use the letters to correspond to students’ names. Similarly to calling sticks, if the teacher or another student draws the letter “D,” the next participant/classroom speaker’s name must start with or include the letter “D.”
  • Use the letter pieces to spell sight words for students. They can recreate the sight word from memory when the letters are scrambled up. Conversely, to challenge the strong spellers or provide enrichment, teachers may want to spell a sight word incorrectly and ask the student to remove or swap out the incorrect or misplaced letter.
  • Split students into groups and provide them with a pile of letters. Groups must race to sort the consonants and vowels into two different piles. The first group with everything sorted correctly wins!
  • Provide students with two vowels and three consonants. Then challenge them to see how many words they can spell with their letters by rearranging the squares.
  • For students just learning the alphabet, provide them with several letters and an alphabet reference strip if needed. Ask students to then put the letters in alphabetical order, skipping any letters that are not part of the sequence they were given.
  • Divvy up the letters to small groups of students. Put a photo up on the board to represent a spelling word, like “table,” for example. Then ask students to raise their hands if they think their letter is involved in the spelling of the word. If so, then as students with hands raised to arrange themselves in the correct order to spell that word.
  • Set up a “photo album” of images that contain consonant blends or digraphs that students have been learning about. For each photo, ask students to place the Scrabble squares of the letters that form that digraph or blend. For instance, if the photo depicts a flower, the student would place “f” and “l” on the picture; a stop sign would mean that “s” and “t” should be placed on the image.
  • As an extension activity, or to challenge students with strong phonics skills, provide them with a recorded sound, like “ew.” Then ask them to come up with all of the vowel/consonant combinations that could compose a word with that vowel sound: blue, too, crew, shoe, bruise, two, flu, etc. The key for this activity is that students begin to recognize the different combinations of letters that can make the same or similar sounds.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. II

As previously discussed in part one, visual prompts, tools, and strategies can help learners who may struggle with linguistic presentations. Whether attentive issues, behavioral struggles, or deficits in auditory processing are the obstacle, visualization methods can assist with students whose needs vary in and out of the classroom.



  • Use visuals to provide context for vocabulary terms. Teachers can boost memory and recall by pairing terms with images that explain or represent the definition. For example, science teachers may want to accompany terms for the parts of a flower with a diagram that depicts each part. They could use photos or time lapse videos to demonstrate how organic matter decays or decomposes. In history or world studies, students can benefit from seeing locations, countries, and landmarks that they are studying so that they have a better grasp of its importance. Instead of simply discussing Tanzania, teachers will want to show Tanzania on a map so that students can conceptualize its location with background knowledge of the surrounding areas.
  • For practices involving phonics and fluency, obviously pronouncing new words for students to chime back is beneficial to start. However, when working independently to decode, students may find that visual cue cards for prefixes/suffixes are more helpful for their visual approach to reading. For example, struggling decoders might find it helpful to see how words are segmented or broken down into parts and then physically put them back together like a puzzle. Visually speaking, words like “cub” versus “cube” could be confusing to beginning readers or English language learners. Teachers should provide opportunities to use letter cards or scrabble pieces to match “cub” with the photo of a baby bear; then add the “e” to match the word with an image of an ice cube. The physical manipulatives, combined with the images, help young readers visualize the proper spelling while also solidifying pronunciation and definitions.
  • Similarly, teachers and parents can help beginning readers by incorporating visual aids into sight words. As a memorization tool, basic flashcards only go so far. Instead, think about how the letters of the word could be constructed or decorated with images that relate to the word’s meaning. For example, the sight word “look” could be spelled using googly eyes for the double “o” to demonstrate someone looking at something. Perhaps the word “play” could incorporate athletic equipment to form the letters, with “p” resembling a basketball, “L” formed by a hockey stick, and “y” in the shape of a tennis racket.


Additional Concepts

  • If content involves a process or step-by-step explanation, consider using flow charts, mind maps, or other visual diagrams to help students conceptualize the process. For differentiation, teachers may ask advanced students to create their own flow chart using their text or class notes, while struggling students may use a word bank/concept bank to complete a fill-in-the-blank flow chart. Either way, the objective is the same; students are demonstrating knowledge of a specific process by constructing a visual/diagram.
  • For essays, written responses, and notetaking, teachers should instruct and encourage students to utilize graphic organizers to visually compose comprehensive outlines of their drafts. In spider diagrams, the main idea of the written response is the spider’s body, while the legs connect to supporting details, quotes, and examples, which helps students visually compose a well-supported argument or claim as a prewriting activity.

Besides standard images or symbols to help students, teachers can expand upon the idea of visuals to include videos, films/documentaries, art, graphic novel excerpts, artifacts, and video games. The more engagement and connections to prior knowledge that visuals can offer, the stronger the learning experience will be.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. I

Visualization as a learning strategy is most commonly seen in the language arts department. Teachers may prompt students to visualize what is happening in the text to boost comprehension and recall before, during, and after reading. This is a proven, worthwhile technique, especially for struggling readers and those with attention difficulties. However, there are numerous other ways in which educators can use visualization and visual tools to enhance learning opportunities that span far beyond the “try to picture or visualize what is happening” cue.


Visual Awareness

Some students, especially those with attentive or behavioral issues, often find that they are most successful when educational tasks encourage the use of spatial areas of the brain, as opposed to linguistic areas. To initiate visualization processes, teachers and parents can practice many different strategies, across any content area.



Because mathematics can often involve complex, abstract, nebulous concepts and values, even grasping a math question can be daunting, especially for people who struggle to tap into their “math brains,” like myself. For instance, questions involving exponents, decimals, and measurements, can be very intimidating. Students may not know where to begin when working with what they believe to be ambiguous concepts or terminology.


  • Accompany measurements, whether weight, height, temperature, density, etc., with familiar, tangible comparisons. For example, if the question involves calculating the area of a surface, provide visual context by telling students that the surface would be about the size of a tennis court, classroom tile, standard doorway, etc. On assessments, consider providing images to represent that object, as opposed to just the calculations or measurements. If asking students about three-dimensional objects, prompt them to picture an everyday object that represents the size and shape.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to conceptualize number functions in different ways. For example, understanding exponents, like 2 to the 8th power, might leave young learners scratching their heads. If teachers provide visual context or long-written forms, students can better prepare to grapple with the task. Even a simple visual process, such as writing out the simplified exponent, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, and then grouping them while multiplying, can assist with the otherwise unfamiliar concept.
  • Post visuals around the classroom of commonly used terminology. Especially for younger learners, simple symbols used to exhibit addition or subtraction processes can serve as a subtle reminder to students during instruction and practice.
  • Consider taping simple visual resources to each desk during the start of a new math unit. If beginning to discuss fractions, use a photos of segmented chocolate chip cookies for reference. With a visual, some students may find that decimals and fractions are more approachable when they can see what that fraction looks like in a physical sense; ⅛ of a cookie is much less appealing than ¾ of the same cookie.
  • Teachers can prompt visual thinking as well by asking clarifying questions or having students come up with their own comparisons. If measuring objects, ask students to brainstorm what they think would be a similar sized object. What would be slightly smaller or bigger? Which might weigh more? Ask students to visualize patterns and proceed with the next series of figures.

Creating a Positive Climate for Learning, Part I

Whether we’re talking public schools, private schools, tutoring sessions, or homework at the kitchen table, a positive mindset goes a long way when it comes to the learning environment. Research shows that when teachers and students feel valued, respected, motivated, and engaged, learning increases exponentially—of course it does! As logical as this push for positivity may seem, it does not simply emerge out of nowhere; it must be cultivated by those who wish to bring it to life. There are small, deliberate steps that schools, parents, teachers, and students can take to foster a positive, successful learning environment.


At the school level

Creating a safe, engaging, positive learning space is likely the goal of every school. In order to do this, schools must ensure that the individual mission and vision for the school is clearly defined and communicated. Simply put, the vision encompasses the goals for the school and its “ideal” future; the mission involves the day-to-day steps for how the school plans to make that vision a reality. Instead of passively including the vision on official letterhead or posting it to the school’s web pages, school administrators should make a concerted effort to vocalize the goals for their school.

  • The vision should be visible in classrooms, conference rooms, and common areas, like the library or cafeteria.
  • The vision should be phrased in a student-friendly manner, and in a way in which student needs are clearly put at the forefront.
  • Schools should communicate how this vision will come to life and set up expectations for students and staff that foster such an environment.
  • Recognize students who embody the vision or mission statements with awards, celebrations, certificates, etc. The point is to grow an appreciation for the overall goals of the school and highlight when small gains are made by its members.
  • The vision should account for the community as a whole. Perhaps a middle or high school will partner with the neighborhood elementary school for a “buddy-study” program; or maybe the local businesses or organizations want to offer a career day or “shadowing” opportunity. A nearby retirement community may want to perform with the school’s chorus for an intergenerational choir.
  • On a similar note, schools can foster positivity by giving back to the community. A food drive, coat collection, trash clean-up, or anonymous pay-it-forward initiative in the community can build positivity and teach students what it means to contribute to society. Even small gestures, like thank you cards or planting a tree on campus for Earth Day can spur more positive motivation for learning.
  • Appreciation days for support staff, maintenance personnel, security, and cafeteria workers also help to exhibit a learning environment where everyone is valued. Students benefit from learning in a building where everyone’s efforts and contributions are acknowledged and celebrated. Showing admiration and appreciation to the hardworking people that run the building every day helps improve the school climate on both singular and wholistic levels.

On the topic of recognition, schools can foster positivity and an optimistic climate by celebrating student work and achievements throughout the building. Schools should think about using the daily news show or morning announcements to announce birthdays, students of the month, athletic scores and stats, community service achievements, etc. Ask students to exhibit their art work, photography, essays, or poems in display cases throughout the building—this shows young learners that, more than the grade, it’s the effort and growth that builds the foundation of a strong, successful school.