Below the Surface of Learning Potential

Let’s face it: Teachers can control their instructional practices, their classroom environment, and the relationships they develop with students and encourage among students, but these elements are just the tip of the learning potential iceberg. Sometimes teachers need to look below the surface to understand what is affecting their students’ ability to learn.

One of the most powerful forces is one of the elements teachers have no control over: the student’s family. A family’s socioeconomic level, cultural reference, level of education, and expectations affect how students learn and behave.

  • Is money available for school supplies, books, and computers?
  • Do parents have the time, interest, and knowledge to be involved in their children’s learning?
  • Do parents believe education will make an important difference in their children’s lives?
  • Do they expect their children to take responsibility for their actions at home and at school?
  • Do they spend time together in leisure activities like reading, enjoying walks, visiting museums, or engaging in sports?

Control What You Can

Teachers have no control over what happens at home, over how well families function; however, they can do everything possible to make the time students spend in their classrooms positive and productive.

Recognize that students’ ability to learn is affected by the stresses they experienced earlier in the day. These stresses may include insufficient sleep, inadequate or unhealthy breakfast, tension at home, bullying by peers, and frustrations in a previous class. Help students process their stress. Listen to them or give them time to talk things over with a classmate.

Stress can also be the root cause of student misbehavior. When students misbehave, don’t take it personally. State expectations but offer them choices that are acceptable and provide them with face-saving options. Process the situation only after everyone is calm again.

Build relationships with students, welcoming them warmly each day by name and providing positive reinforcement. Show caring, model respect, and have high expectations. Maintain a pleasant, safe, and non-threatening classroom environment that encourages learning. Providing warm verbal and visual clues, immediate feedback, reminders of high expectations, and recognition of achievements—no matter how small—can help students stay focused on their learning.

Model and teach life skills. Point out examples of positive values and attitudes, problem-solving strategies, conflict resolution, and other life skills as you teach the content.

Take the time to learn about your students’ lives, their previous schooling experiences, and their learning intelligences. Then, adjust your instruction and discipline strategies. Offer students choices in how to process and share their learning; encourage discussion; use art, music, and role playing. Scaffold difficult work to allow students’ emotional brain to relax and let the cognitive brain take charge.

Digging Deep

Students’ ability to learn is influenced by the totality of their life experiences. Sometimes you have to look below the surface to find the key to student success. What you see in your classrooms each day represents just the tip of the iceberg.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010

Meryl Greer Domina is assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Northern Illinois University. E-mail: