Brookes Publishing's logo

The Preview: Education

Brain block: 3 steps to overcoming learning difficulties

Group of students

Some students just seem to have a harder time in class than others. They struggle to keep track of their materials, turn in homework, figure out how to tackle projects, and keep up with lessons—often leaving both teacher and student frustrated. But teachers who recognize these difficulties as signs of brain-based developmental delays are in a better position to help their students succeed.

Once teachers understand that neurodevelopmental delays often underlie struggles with the types of critical skills needed for academic success, they can tailor instruction to bolster students' areas of weakness.

Try these 3 research-backed steps to help your students overcome cognitive processing challenges that may be blocking their learning.

1. Discover what your students need

2. Strengthen executive function skills

3. Use differentiated instruction to help each student succeed

Discover what your students need

Before you can choose interventions that will help your students, you need to know exactly which areas they're struggling with. Jack Naglieri's PASS Rating Scale, which can be found in the new edition of Helping Children Learn: Intervention Handouts for Use in School and at Home, tells you what you need to know about a child's intellectual or cognitive processing characteristics so you can target your interventions.

Here are the four critical areas PASS helps you evaluate:

Planning. Children who make good plans have lots of ways of doing things and are effective at coming up with strategies.

Attention. An attentive child selectively focuses on the teacher and resists being distracted by less relevant sights and sounds, like children talking outside the room.

Simultaneous Cognitive Processes. Children who are good at simultaneous processing easily understand how pieces of a whole fit together and see patterns in many places whether the patterns are of images or words, concepts, or ideas.

Successive Cognitive Processes. Children who have strong successive processing ability can remember things in order, work with information organized in a linear manner, and follow instructions presented in sequence.

To assess your students' needs, download a copy of the PASS Rating Scale, which can be administered by either a school psychologist or a teacher. Once all questions have been answered, examine the scores within each PASS area; then choose interventions targeted at any area that received a lot of Sometimes or Never ratings.

For example, if the results show the student needs extra help in planning, follow these tips on how to teach planning skills from Helping Children Learn.

Strengthen executive function skills

Many of the tasks students with neurodevelopmental delays struggle with fall under the category of "executive function" skills: skills that help with organization, homework completion, time management, and impulse control, for instance. These skills, associated with the frontal lobe of the human brain, do not fully develop until young adulthood and can particularly vex struggling students.

Try these strategies from Christopher Kaufman's Executive Function in the Classroom to help you boost your students' executive function skills:

1. Provide students with the "surrogate prefrontal lobe" support they may need: For instance, if a student has trouble paying attention in class, decide in advance on a verbal or non-verbal signal you can use to alert the student in case he starts going off task during group activities.

2. Teach new skills and content systematically and explicitly: Children with brain development delays are more likely to struggle with tasks that are unfamiliar to them. You can help by presenting new skills and content in highly explicit, engaging, step-by-step ways. For example, teach new vocabulary words by acting them out, and then call on student volunteers to "perform" the words. You might also have your students form small groups and act out the new words in different ways.

3. Demonstrate how to apply strategies in real-life contexts: Students with learning challenges benefit from explicit instruction—not just in the "what" but also in the"how" of learning. To help with an overarching skill such as organization or note-taking, try strategies that will help them structure their thoughts and activities. For example, introduce a structured pre-writing strategy to help students systematically brainstorm, select, and sequence their ideas before they begin to write. This will build the goal-setting, planning, and organizational skills of all children.

Learn four more strategies that build the frontal-lobe abilities of students with cognitive processing difficulties in this free download from Executive Function in the Classroom.

Use differentiated instruction to help each student succeed

Differentiating instruction to support the learning of students with varying abilities in your classroom does not have to be complicated. You can find plenty of examples of easy-to-implement adaptations in Paula Kluth's new book From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K–12 Inclusive Classrooms.

Say, for instance, you have a student with autism who is overwhelmed by all the daily papers, schedules, and expectations he must keep track of. You can guide him in the use of a "desk map" to help him stay organized and prepare for activities. A desk map is a diagram of all items in the desk, drawn on a small index card or sheet of paper. The drawing can be taped to the top of the student's desk or attached to the inside "ceiling" of the desktop with clear packing tape.

Another simple tool is a homework organizer: Set up a three-ring binder with labeled plastic folders inside for each subject, plus another folder for permission slips, school–home communication, and other related papers. Work with the student to sort homework and other papers in the right folders, and then gradually withdraw your support until the student is using the system independently.

Here are two more suggestions for you to try from From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks. Learn how to create "fidget bags" of small manipulatives that provide sensory input and keep the student occupied, and try "word attack packs."


For students with neurodevelopmental delays, the obstacles to academic success can seem tough to overcome. But by conducting assessments, building students' executive function skills, and using differentiated instruction, you can discover what's behind learning difficulties and help them develop the skills they need to succeed.

This article features downloads from the following books:

Helping Children Learn: Intervention Handouts for Use in School and at Home, Second Edition

Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students

From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms

home | catalog