How to help a conflict-avoidant, quiet, uncommunicative student
November 11, 2014 8:53 PM   Subscribe

What can a teacher do to help a conflict-avoidant, quiet, uncommunicative student be successful?

I'm an instructor at a paid full-time course meant for adult career changers. Not college or university, but an educational organization that organizes these courses. I'm having trouble reaching one of my students (20 years old, male).

This student is shy, quiet, and extremely conflict-avoidant. He also seems to have trouble with executive skills. Sometimes he gets the material just fine. But when he doesn't, he will just sit quietly spinning his wheels, trying one thing after another and not really getting anywhere. He will not ask a question.

In general, he's only able to complete work as long as someone (another student or an instructor) is by his side. Otherwise he will just get stuck. During individual practice time, if I come over to help him as I circulate throughout the classroom, he will mostly just nod his head and say one or two words as we step through the problem together. I'll get him just to the next step (not solving the whole thing for him) and get him to explain what we did and say what the next step should be, but often when I circulate back to him 20 minutes later, he will still be at that same step, not much further than when I left him. He still will not ask a question. If prompted, he will say something vague like "I'm not really sure why it's not working."

For self-directed projects, he has extreme difficulty making a list of action items. He also had difficulty prioritizing them, and even when I helped him make the list and prioritize it, he still had difficulty executing the steps listed (as above) and didn't really get beyond the first smallish step given several hours to work alone. Also his notetaking during class is very haphazard, even when specifically asked to take notes.

This came to a head during a recent group project, during which he has been completely uncommunicative with his group. He had a specific task to complete by himself over the weekend. He did a bare minimum of research on that task, got stuck, and then... did nothing. He didn't email/chat/text anyone from his group or the instructors, even though everyone has each other's contact info. Then he mixed up his schedule and missed a day of class, and didn't tell his group or instructors anything about why he was missing. So he was gone for 3 days during a high-stakes time and didn't say a word. His group went ahead and basically did the project without him; there's only one more day left. The instructors explicitly said he owes his group an apology. He still hasn't said anything to them about being out of contact for so long.

The most remarkable thing is that when the instructors talked to him about his lack of communication, his basic reaction was that he seemed oblivious. He just kind of looked at us and blinked and smiled sheepishly and didn't say much of anything except vague phrases like "yeah, next time I should probably communicate better." He didn't seem particularly regretful or ashamed or guilty or embarrassed or indignant. Just kind of oblivious as to why this was a problem and what he could do about it.

I've tried to give him lots of support of different kinds. I emphasize (over and over, to everyone in the class) that it's okay to not understand something, that we're all in this together, and that it's good to ask each other for help. There's a chat/IM room for the class where people frequently post questions, and everyone has each other's email and phone numbers too. I model for everyone what good question-asking and Googling looks like. During lessons, there is a mix of groupwork, pair work, and individual work. But still, as soon as he needs to do something by himself, he is generally unable to break the task down into steps, execute any of the steps, or communicate coherently about questions he has.

As an instructor, how can I best help this student?
posted by danceswithlight to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a psychologist, but it sounds to me like this kid is either doing WAY too much pot or that he has some sort of autism. I'm not sure there's anything a non-psychiatrist can really do here. Social skills can't be learned overnight especially once you're already an adult.
posted by rancher at 9:11 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not sure about helping this student as this sounds somewhat outside what you can address in a non specialist classroom setting without the other students suffering. He appears to lack even the most rudimentary communication, study and social skills. Please make sure your other students are not hampered too much by this guy. He is clearly struggling but your responsibility is to the whole class, not just this individual. If that means he doesn't complete the program so be it. He may need more specialist help than your program can provide or else is so disengaged that he doesn't care one way or another.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:40 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is he there under duress, e.g. in order to maintain benefits of some kind? If so, his motivation might not be 100% (it might be a kind of passive resistance, vs. a cognitive issue).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:41 PM on November 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

* Identify the behavior that needs to change. You've already done that.
* Create a graded level of difficulty in tasks that works to the most independent level. Such as:
-- Joe will identify when he need help with tasks.
-- Joe will contact individuals that will be resources.
-- Joe will create questions that identify breakdowns in understanding.
-- Joe will independently do all these things.
* Create supports at each of these steps that are are pulled away as an activity is mastered. Like checklists (human checklist, visual checklist) for understanding of tasks, people to contact, and how to create a good question visual planner. Supports can be anything - explicitly instructed strategies, visual planners, phone reminders, verbal cues, calendar and so on - this is the tricky part, figuring out which supports work best for your student.

Be patient, he can improve in this skill.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:42 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are doing the right things (ex. modeling behavior), but aren't sure where his breakdown is occurring explicitly. Investigate this some more, interview him without blaming. I'm sure he knows something is and can help you figure this out.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:46 PM on November 11, 2014

He genuinely may not realize what's at stake, for him and for others, now and in the future.
posted by amtho at 9:50 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is he getting overwhelmed by all the possible next actions? (E.g. he could try x or y to solve his problem, or he could ask a peer, or ask the instructor, or google for the answer or go to the library or...)? Perhaps it would help to just tell him one thing to remember. That one thing should be "if you get stuck, ask the instructor for help." This is true whether he is in the classroom, or working at home (in which case he can send an email). Just reiterate this to him every time you find he didn't do it.

"Joe, you've been sitting there for ten minutes not doing anything. What is wrong?"
"I couldn't figure out the next step."
"Joe, when you are stuck, what did I say to do? You ask the instructor for help."

"Joe, your groupmates said you didn't do your part of the assignment. What happened?"
"I didn't know how to solve the blah blah blah"
"What did I say to do when you get stuck? You ask the instructor for help."

It sounds like a simple script like this might help cut through whatever confusion is short-circuiting his work processes.
posted by lollusc at 10:14 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

it sounds to me like this kid is either doing WAY too much pot or that he has some sort of autism

I had the same sort of problems, especially with math. I am not autistic and I have never smoked pot or done any other drugs.

If this kid is anything like I was he is probably deeply frustrated by what feels like an immovable barrier between him and what should be an easy problem to solve. The stress of not meeting objectives -- and the stress of not knowing why it seems so difficult -- only make it worse.

I always suspected that I had a learning disability that I didn't get help with. Perhaps you could help him get in touch with someone who can help diagnose and treat it, if that is the problem.
posted by klanawa at 10:29 PM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Wow, it sounds like you are doing everything you can. It must be very frustrating and challenging for you and for the student. However, unless there is something else going on (like cotton dress sock's theory about expressing passive resistance), the behaviour your student is exhibiting is absolutely classic in someone who did not develop appropriate skills and strategies for learning. Looking at the adult literacy learning outcomes in my provincial guidebook, I would assess your student (from your description) as being at a level where it is actually expected that students will need to be explicitly taught to...

...participate in group discussion and activities
...ask for help when they need it independently on tasks
...follow directions.

Most people learn this stuff in elementary school, but some people just don't, for a variety of reasons. They are NOT stupid, they just don't have the skills. Adult literacy programs are full of students like this guy, and none of them would be able to function in a program like the one you're teaching, which actually requires quite a high level of these sorts of skills. Your student is definitely not alone, and there may not actually be a cognitive or developmental problem there (not saying there isn't, but there might not be).

Unfortunately, instead of being in a class with other students who also need to learn these things, your student is with people who are functioning at a much higher level. It would be inappropriate for you to spend time on these skills with the group because his classmates have already learned them. However, the conundrum is, this particular student is never going to be able to participate in the class until he gets these skills, and given the level he's at, he is just not going to pick them up by observing you or his classmates modeling the behaviour. He needs explicit instruction and reinforcement. It's like if this were a lifeguarding class, and everyone else in the class is working on lifeguarding skills while he doesn't know how to swim at all. He is going to have to learn that first; he can't just do what everyone else is doing.

Can you find another program for him to be in where everyone is learning these basic skills? If you can't, can you at least set different goals for him that don't involve doing the same group work as the rest of the class? Maybe his goals can be things like "I am going to ask for help three times this week." "I am going to complete one task independently for the next five minutes." I like lollusc's script and suggestion of not overwhelming him with multiple options for solutions when stuck, just focusing on one ("When I get stuck, I will ask the instructor for help.")

This whole situation sounds very difficult, and I feel for you! But it really sounds like he needs a different class geared to his (much more basic) needs.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:03 AM on November 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm a special ed high school teacher. We get a lot of new kids at our therapeutic high school with years of school failure behind them and little to no testing.

What we do is advocate for educational testing which doesn't usually happen and we just work with the symptoms that we see. You're describing an inability to initiate which is an executive function, but initiation may not be happening for a lot of reasons.

We don't diagnose students because as you can see, this could be almost anything: drug use, executive function disorder, a learning disability, a spectrum disorder. Who knows, right?

Here are a few hacks you could try:

1. Gradual release. It's "I do one, we all do one, you do one." You model how to solve something, then you have students solve something with you, then they solve one. They don't move on to independence until they show they know what they're doing.

2. Increase multi-modal learning. Have directions presented in words, in pictures, in an example set where every single step is laid out AND EXPLAINED, and have students create their own samples in a way that makes sense to them.

3. Spend a lot more time than you think you need explaining how to do something. Start with the small stuff and then generalize. For example, I work with kids who will understand an algebraic concept if the terms are X and Y, but if I change the unknown terms to P and Z, they have no idea what to do. I didn't teach them to generalize the concept.

4. Instead of working the angle of, "Ask when you need help," REFRAME it into, "Tell when you know what to do." Model that by having students explain their process at problem solving. It's a subtle classroom hack but it works because it's strength based, not deficit based. It's not what they can't do, but what they CAN do.

5. It could be a lot of things, but it's clear he can't do group work. Don't assign him group work; it's setting him up to fail.

Seems like you're on the right track. Memail me if you need more suggestions.
posted by kinetic at 2:58 AM on November 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

Based upon my expert opinion (no seriously) you are describing someone with a severe processing disability.

This is a person who may have a serious learning disability and who has been through school knowing that he will pass so long as he's quiet and doesn't bother anyone. I've had a few of these during my tenure as a teacher and they scare the bejesus out of me. One of them got all the way to high school without learning to read or write. It scares me because our educational system can allow this to happen and it means that this guy went through 13 years of K-12 without anyone a. noticing or b. doing anything about it. Brrrrr.

If your program has such a thing, see if you can get him referred for assessment. I'm here to tell you that this is beyond the scope of the kind of teaching you are doing. The only way this guy is going to improve is to understand why he is the way he is, and learning strategies and techniques for overcoming his disability.

I repeat, this is above your pay grade.

Note: I've never met this kid, I don't know you, and I realize that we're all strangers on the internet. But I'm very comfortable with my pronouncement.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on November 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

I heartily second Ruthless Bunny. After spending the last 15 years teaching in a public high school, my first thought was processing disability or frontal lobe damage. Definitely refer for assessment.
posted by SamanthaK at 10:44 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know on diagnoses, but I haaaaaaaate asking questions of other humans and won't do it except as a last resort. Except this guy won't even do that. I wonder if he got in a lot of trouble as a kid for speaking up, asking anything, or admitting he didn't understand (again, and again, and again....), because people WILL get pissed off at you if you're publicly stupid and don't get what they patiently explained to you several times already. You learn to just say "Oh, I understand" and walk away and stay quiet.

It sounds like he needs his hand held the entire time and will take that if it's offered, but he won't/can't ask for that help. I think he's just not up for taking this class, honestly. It's too hard for him and he needs a lot more hand holding than his fellow students and group members can provide for him. Or for that matter, WANT to provide for him, because they probably don't want to have to slowly walk him through every single thing for hours either when they have their own load to do.

I don't know if you can get him some kind of tutoring, but that's about the only thing I can think of that would help-private one on one that he doesn't have to speak up and ask for.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:51 PM on November 12, 2014

@Klanawa I hope I did not offend you as that was my intent. I did say I was not a professional so my touting autism or drugs were simply offshoots to make the point that this was not normal cognitive behavior and that this person needed to be evaluated by a specialist. A teacher working with a class can't do much on their own in this case.
posted by rancher at 11:28 AM on November 14, 2014

No offence taken.
posted by klanawa at 5:00 PM on November 14, 2014

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