Stages of Studenting to Empower Learners

By Wade McJacobs

During winter break, Jake’s father died in an altercation with police. He returned to school numb with grief. Teachers wondered what was reasonable to expect of him. How much extra time should they allow for Jake to complete assignments? What kind of adjustments could they make on assessments that would accommodate his needs while also maintaining the integrity of their classes?

We constantly ask these questions when working with students who struggle with life’s turmoil. The stories abound, but they all have one thing in common: distractions disrupt academic pursuits that have little or nothing to do with academic skills or abilities. In our classrooms:

  • We have students trying to figure out how to tell their parents that they are pregnant.
  • We have students trying to avoid drug suppliers and stick to recovery programs.
  • We have students who have been abandoned or abused.
  • We have students who are primary breadwinners for their families.

The list goes on.

Teachers, as a group, are compassionate and empathetic professionals. They are genuinely saddened when their students struggle, especially when the cause of the struggle is non-academic. Thus, as a special education teacher, I was often asked how to adjust to students’ needs. Teachers learn to educate. They are not psychologists, social workers, or other professionals who provide student services.

They take on the task, a daunting and honorable task, of educating our youth.

What’s an educator to do?

After weeks of Jake replying to all questions, personal and academic, with a simple, “I don’t know,” he finally turned in a completed assignment. It took 18 months for Jake to return to his level of productivity before his father’s death. What happened to his education during this legitimate time of challenge?

The school assisted Jake and his family in finding grief counseling and social services. But what was the classroom teacher to do? The challenge was keeping Jake connected to the school and his education. He could easily have become a dropout—or worse.

What did we have to offer within the field of education to which we have devoted years of training and practice? The therapists had something. The social workers had something. Educators, however, could only offer a report on Jake’s failing to complete his assigned tasks. We could be inviting, encouraging, and accommodating, but within the world of education, all we had to offer Jake was another assignment.

Stages of Studenting was born

As I considered my response to Jake’s teachers’ inquiries about what to reasonably expect, I realized that I needed to focus on Jake’s accomplishments. To empower Jake with a vision for success, he needed to know what he was already doing.

Although not completing academic tasks, Jake came to school every day. He attended all his classes and remained in class for the entire period. With this observation, I awakened to the notion that school engagement, or Studenting—as I came to call it, was attained in stages, especially when non-academic interference impacts students.

Jake had attained Stage 3 (remaining in class) of the Stages of Studenting, which meant the next stage for him was Stage 4 (being prepared for learning). By viewing studenting as a series of accomplishments, Jake saw himself as a part of the educational process in his school.

More importantly, Jake felt empowered to improve himself and his situation even amidst the challenges he was addressing with the absence of his father.

Just as significantly for Jake, the teachers felt empowered with a framework upon which they could structure his progress. They could offer Jake areas of focus in which he could find success even when he was not able to complete assignments.

This new framework became available to the teachers in their field of expertise. They did not need to set aside a student’s education while the student worked through the challenges of life with some other professional.

Jake needed an extra year to complete high school but never dropped out. He remained connected to all of the supports that his school and his teachers had to offer. Stages of Studenting allowed Jake the necessary time to process his father’s death without having to abandon his commitment to himself, his education, and his future.

Stages of Studenting

  • Stage 0—Not attending school
  • Stage 1—Attending school
  • Stage 2—Attending classes
  • Stage 3—Remaining in class
  • Stage 4—Being prepared for learning
  • Stage 5—Engaging in classroom activities
    • Listening
    • Answering questions
    • Asking questions
    • Participating in group activities
  • Stage 6—Producing work
    • Following given instructions
    • Completing classwork
    • Turning work in
    • Accepting feedback
    • Revising work
    • Homework
  • Stage 7—Initiating communication with teachers about progress in classes
  • Stage 8—Initiating communication about graduation and post-high school plans

Broader application of Stages of Studenting

Teachers began to use Stages of Studenting in all interactions with students, parents, and other professionals. It became a guideline for the creation of interventions for students who were struggling. Instead of compassionately nagging about missing assignments, teachers could creatively entice students to engage with the next stage.

Teachers posted Stages of Studenting in their classrooms and referred to them during meetings. They would ask students to place themselves on the stages to get perspective on their accomplishments. Teachers would independently rate students on the stages in staff meetings and compare their ratings.

This simple yet rich process became instructive in creating a clear sense of the student’s accomplishments and where interventions could be helpful.

Consultations with other professionals, psychologists, juvenile justice counselors, etc., became simplified and more efficient. When teachers report a student is engaged at Stage 4 but struggling with Stage 5, a consultant can quickly establish an accurate view of a student’s performance and needs. 

Stages of Studenting is a framework that provides a metric of engagement for students whose schooling has been disrupted by non-academic circumstances. It allows for clear communications about progress and performance between all parties involved in educating and caring for students.

Most importantly, Stages of Studenting empowers students to realize they are in control of what it takes to earn an education. With this tool, students and teachers see themselves as allies in attaining education. Teachers are much better teachers if they can remain in teaching.

After teaching special education for 31 years, Wade founded Student Empowerment Group, LLC to help teachers work to build student confidence to learn. Wade lives in Beaverton, Oregon with his wife in a nest empty of their two children.

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh via Pexels

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