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Author Q&A with Erik von Hahn on Essential Skills for Struggling Learners

How can school teams effectively support the diverse needs of students with and without learning difficulties?

The innovative planning guide Essential Skills for Struggling Learners identifies 11 developmental domains that are essential for successful learning, along with a framework of critical skills associated with each domain that can help teams pinpoint why a student is struggling and adapt their support efforts accordingly. Lead author Erik von Hahn, M.D.—with input from co-authors Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. and Caroline Linse, Ed.D.—talked with us this month about this unique guidebook.

In this Q&A, Dr. von Hahn discusses his book’s relevance to both online and in-person learning in the age of COVID-19, the importance of a shared vocabulary for professionals of different disciplines on the same Student Support Team, and more.

1. What new contributions does this book make to the existing literature on supporting struggling learners? What features set it apart from other books that cover similar subject matter?

I had a lot of goals in writing this book, and many of them were to differentiate my book from all of the other books on the market. Specifically, this book:

Focuses on child development and how it helps us understand education. This book is novel because it uses knowledge of child development to inform instruction. However, it does not focus on chronological ages or age-related developmental milestones. Rather, it describes key developmental domains that are critical for successful learning, and the predictable pathway children follow as they build skills within each domain. Teachers can use the domains (organized as a set of Frameworks) and pathways (the developmental sequence in each Framework) to identify why a student might be struggling. When they discover learning challenges, they can intensify instruction at the right point along the student’s developmental path—and facilitate the student’s learning success in the process. Although the book comes out of my work with children who struggle to learn, it’s actually useful to all learners and all their teachers, in both special and general education.

Connects the diagnosis with specific developmental frameworks. If a struggling learner has already been identified for specialized instruction, educators will benefit from making connections between a child’s diagnosis or educational classification (such as ADHD, autism, or specific learning disability) and the developmental domains and pathways described in the book. The domains and the frameworks provide a logical approach to identifying the needs of learners with diverse disabilities. For example, students with ADHD struggle to develop their executive skills, so the chapter on executive skills provides key information needed to help foster the growth and development of the student with ADHD. The student with autism struggles to develop social and pragmatic language skills, and two frameworks are dedicated to those developmental domains. Students commonly need their instruction intensified in several frameworks. By identifying all of the frameworks that apply to the student, the teacher and the Student Support Team can map out how to intensify instruction in all areas of need.

This innovative planning guide is your key to identifying and prioritizing the essential skills that students with and without learning difficulties need to succeed.

2. Your book is organized around 11 key domains of learning, and provides a framework for each domain that includes critical skills and skill sets all students need to succeed. How do these frameworks you provide help education professionals in their daily work with students who struggle?

Any teacher who sees a student struggling to learn wants to understand the student’s challenges and what they are supposed to do about those challenges. The first step is to decide which of the three sections of the book is most likely to result in an answer: Neurological, Developmental, or Educational. Perusing more deeply, the teacher can pick out which frameworks are most likely to explain the student’s learning difficulty. After that, the teacher can winnow down further and discover the specific skills sets and skills that are most likely affected.

One way to identify a student’s learning struggles is to use the student’s report card. The skills that teachers commonly grade on a report card connect predictably to the three sections and 11 frameworks presented in the book. For example, if the student is struggling in the “academic” section of the report card, the teacher will need to focus on the educational section of the book, which includes frameworks for reading, writing, and/or math. If the student is struggling in the “classroom participation behaviors” section of the report card, the teacher will need to look carefully at the developmental section of the book, and the five frameworks that cover language skills, pragmatic and social skills, executive skills, and self-regulation skills.

The book helps teachers break down all the possible causes of learning difficulty into one or a few probable causes. Once that’s completed, the teacher can take next steps: find an in-district colleague to help verify initial impressions, try some interventions and collect data to present to the Student Support Team, or justify the request for a formal evaluation. Following the evaluation, educators can also review evaluation results and use the book to translate those findings into meaningful educational goals and objectives.

If a teacher is feeling unsure about how to identify the student’s areas of need, the book serves to facilitate dialogue between the teacher and the specialist. Together, they can identify the student’s areas of need and simultaneously benefit from inter-professional training.

The 11 Key Domains of Learning

  • Vision Skills
  • Hearing Skills
  • Motor Skills
  • Formal Language Skills
  • Pragmatic Language Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Executive Skills
  • Affect and Self-Regulation Skills
  • Reading Skills
  • Writing Skills
  • Math Skills

3. Your book focuses strongly on the importance of communication and collaboration among professionals from different disciplines and backgrounds. What do you think are the biggest barriers to this type of collaboration right now—and what are the specific benefits of overcoming those barriers?

Working in teams has become critical now, because we know so much more about all the different skills that account for successful learning. No single educator or therapist can address all the needs of all students—we have to rely on colleagues to provide the teaching we can’t provide ourselves. So, always make use of the team.

That said, one of the barriers to working successfully within a team comes from not having a shared set of terms to work with. A big motivation behind this book was my personal experience working with education teams, and the communication barriers I faced in my work with them. I was not always able to share my knowledge with educators successfully, because the terms I was taught to use in the healthcare system were not always understood or helpful in the educational system. I’m so grateful for all the education professionals who helped me to master the education terms I needed to know.

When I wrote this book, one thing I wanted to accomplish was to jumpstart the process of developing a shared vocabulary that everyone on a team could learn and use—with each other and with the student. With a common vocabulary, the work of teaming flows much more naturally. If we break down communication barriers by having a set of shared terms, we stand a chance of really seeing the same student the same way, at the same time, together. I hope my book will help address communication barriers head-on. It is critical for addressing all students’ needs, and is also critical for inter-professional training.

4. Each chapter in your book comes with two printable forms for professionals to use. Can you talk a little about those forms and how they help support the book’s goals?

I struggled (no pun intended) to keep the book concise while also being comprehensive. It covers a lot of material. To help keep readers from being overwhelmed, we created tables at the end of each chapter that provide a succinct summary of the terms needed to make good observations of students. I hope the tables will help education professionals organize their observations and help them make educational decisions more quickly.

5. What were the ultimate goals you had in mind as your team developed this resource? What are the most important things your readers will be able to do after engaging with this book?

All teach, all learn. I want this book to create a community of learners for education professionals, not just for students. I hope this book will foster collaboration so that education professionals can work with, learn from, and teach each other. This “all teach, all learn” model can then spill over into professional interactions with students and even extend to include their families.

Have fun! Watching kids learn is super interesting. It’s the part of my job that I love the most. This book is designed to get all readers to notice, observe, and wonder about the behaviors that students show. What’s worrisome? What’s not worrisome at all? How do we make sense of learning difficulties? What can we do to strengthen those essential skills for learning? I hope that readers of this book will enjoy the “detective work” we do every day as we work together with students who struggle to learn.

Executive Skills and ADHD

Join Erik von Hahn in this free Coffee Chat where he discusses the key executive skills of impulse control, working memory, and planning and shares strategies for what teachers and school teams can do to support children with ADHD in these critical skills.

Watch for free

No single educator or therapist can address all the needs of all students—we have to rely on colleagues to provide the teaching we can’t provide ourselves. So, always make use of the team.

6. Do you think that this book has a special role to play in the COVID-19 era?

Yes! There are two important ways in which Essential Skills is relevant to teaching during COVID-19.

First, the book highlights and labels the skills that students may have difficulty mastering when they can only access learning remotely. For example, classroom participation behaviors that teachers normally have to grade on a report card cannot be easily developed via remote learning. Language skills, pragmatic and social skills, executive skills, and self-regulation skills depend on in-person learning. Motor skills are also hard to nurture and develop without some in-person instruction. Essential Skills helps to identify what’s often missing from remote learning programs and gives educators a chance to find opportunities to make up for aspects of learning that might be absent.

The other way the book will be useful to educators during the COVID-19 pandemic is potentially much more important: Differentiation of instruction. When students return to in-person learning, teachers are going to discover how differently the pandemic has affected each of their students. Some students have not been affected as much as others, and have continued to learn successfully. In contrast, learners who depend on in-person instruction for their success will be further behind. Still other learners are even further behind because of absenteeism. Educators will have to establish a new baseline for their learners when providing whole-class instruction, but they will also have to provide more differentiation. One aspect of differentiation relates to the starting point for the curriculum standards, and the other aspect relates to the student’s success in developing essential skills needed for independent learning. I hope my book can facilitate the process of identifying those essential skills for learning, and help educators deliver instruction at the point where their students need it the most.

Interested in learning more?

Essential Skills for Struggling Learners

Essential Skills for Struggling Learners

A Framework for Student Support Teams

This innovative planning guide is your key to identifying and prioritizing the essential skills that students with and without learning difficulties need to succeed.

Learn More

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