The Struggling Learner Scenario: Intervention Doesn’t Stick

Scenario #4: I’ve worked on a variety of learning intervention strategies with my homeschooled 3rd grade son for many months now.  Some days, the work we do together just clicks for him, and we proudly celebrate the wins.  The very next day, he’s right back where he started, as if the wins never happened.  The inconsistent results seem so… random.  I can’t figure it out.   I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worried that I’m doing it all wrong, that I’m failing him.  What should I do differently?  


Boy in plaid shirt at desk erasing work, looking vacant. Caption reads: The Struggling Learner Scenario: Intervention Doesn't Stick


Despite all of our best efforts, struggling learners can APPEAR to regress for a number of reasons.   Those reasons may depend a lot on whether this only happens for one or two specific strategies, or it happens across the board with intervention strategies in general.



Because I preach the nutrition piece A LOT when it comes to learning differences, I’m going to direct you to a post that I wrote earlier called Profile of a Unique Learner: The On Again Off Again Student.


Even if your child doesn’t fit that profile exactly, consider the possibility that food sensitivities can really interfere with our cognitive function from one day to the next.  Yes, even foods that don’t show up on an official allergy report can slow our thinking down quite a bit.  “On” one day, “off” the next.


Side note: You may have read that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity.  Perhaps that’s true.  In this case I’m not referring to hyperactivity or to ADHD.  I’m referring to our ability to think clearly, to process information, to concentrate, and to optimize learning ability.  The nutrition piece is always worth exploring.


A Philosophy That Serves The Student

If you’re only concerned about one or two strategies in particular, then the obvious answer might be that the strategies themselves aren’t the right fit for your child.  Now, before you start throwing things at your computer (in other words, at me) for that unhelpful answer, let’s go a little deeper.


Maybe you decided to homeschool your son because the traditional school didn’t provide enough support.  If that was the case, good call.


Do be careful, though, that some of the school’s traditional philosophy for helping struggling learners doesn’t inadvertently make its way into your homeschool as well.  Without vilifying schools and teachers here, let me explain.


The common one size fits all approach to teaching in the classroom can also seep into school intervention strategies for struggling learners.


Let’s say that your 3rd grade son reads at a first grade level.  Because the school uses an approved, research-based reading program, that’s the reading program that your child is going to get.


For example, if guided reading is required by the school, then your son may receive phonics strategies, decoding strategies, repeated readings, timed readings and the like.  Sounds reasonable so far, right?


And when guided reading proves to be slow but SOMEWHAT effective, why would the school consider changing the program?  They wouldn’t.


Here’s where you and other homeschool parents have the advantage.

  • You do NOT need to be ruled by the term “research-based.” More on that here.
  • You do NOT need to follow a specific set of rules for your out of the box learner.
  • Just because a reading program works (or even SORT of works) for countless other children does NOT mean it’s going to work for your child. You get to be flexible.  You can stop doing what isn’t working and find a better fit.
  • You do NOT need to believe what schools often believe, that repetition is the answer. Yes, repetition is helpful for creating stronger neural pathways.  Hammering the same information over and over again, however, doesn’t help if we don’t first help our struggling learners learn to PROCESS that information.  (I teach parents how to do that here.)



Speaking of processing, if your son’s visual memory or auditory memory skills are weak or underdeveloped, the information that clicks one day might mysteriously disappear the next.


Once you strengthen visual and auditory processing skills, your efforts to teach reading and other skills become much more effective, and long lasting.  In other words, progress sticks, and then starts building upon itself.  (In case you missed it, I teach parents how to do that here.)


The Big Picture

Finally, EFFECTIVE help for struggling learners often requires a targeted approach.  It also includes a broad view.  Here’s what I mean.


If a child struggles with math, it’s usually not just math that is the problem.  Likely we need to fill the gaps in all underlying learning abilities, the ones that come BEFORE we can understand numbers and how they relate to each other.


If we want to help a struggling learner read, we must also help them with:

  • the visual memory piece
  • the visual tracking piece
  • the auditory discrimination piece

… and so on.  Even before expecting our learners to identify which letters make which sounds, we need to strengthen ALL of the underlying processing skills that aren’t yet strong enough.


The pieces are interconnected.


As I mentioned above, if we strengthen visual tracking, for instance, but miss the memory piece, new information won’t stick, not for very long anyway.  Our intervention efforts will result in slow progress, if at all.


Want to see how easy learning can be for your child when we build the first wrung of the ladder, well, first?  Explore online training here.  (Most of the training videos are free.)


More in the series:

The Struggling Learner Scenario: Poor Handwriting

The Struggling Learner Scenario: Can’t Sit Still

The Struggling Learner Scenario: Afraid to Learn