Individuals First, Learners Second


Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute.

Daniel will be presenting on select topics in Special Education, Executive Functioning, & Habits of Mind. Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics to In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


Photo from WonderGrove and Habits of Mind Animations
To find out more about animations refer to this link:


It’s September and a beginning to a new school year. As you start the year with a new group of students take into consideration this mind-blowing fact.

Did you know that the term “didaskaleinophobia” is the acute fear of going to school? And that it affects about 2.4% of all children?

I bet you didn’t know that, or are asking yourself why I bring that up? Well, I believe it is fair to say that most students have a sense of anxiety, nervousness, or a feeling of unexpected emotions that arise from going to school each day. Although these feelings may not all be considered “fears,” they are emotions that need to be controlled and tended to in order to give a sense of comfort and focused mind to learning. When we, as teachers, understand our students as individuals first and learners second, we are more inclined to make their experience within the classroom both productive and focused to their goals and success.

So, with this in mind, it is important to start each year with a focus on Executive Functioning and Habits of Mind. By utilizing these two concepts within the classroom it will initiate the process of getting to know students as individuals and as learners—two separate entities yet both make an impact within the learning environment.

By beginning the year with these two questions (listed below) and having students respond via email, note card, or writing activity, can make a world of difference in how you plan and carry out class each day. For the first question, supplying a list of the Habits of Mind to reference assists students with identifying their strengths and weaknesses. As for the second question, actions refer to any displayed behavior that positively and negatively affects their success. The idea is for the students to later connect those actions to Executive Functioning skills.

  1. What are habits are your strengths, and what habits are your weaknesses?
  2. What actions do you present that find best support your learning, and what actions do you feel can be improved?

Think about it, these two questions can set the tone for the year by being able to understand your students habits and executive functioning skills.

Here’s some takeaways!

Here are two quick takeaways to put into action for supporting the “actions” and “thinking” of diverse learners within your classroom:

EF Support Box

Before students exit the classroom at the end of each day or week, they complete a reflective note card—no prompt, just self-thoughts in connection the EF skills listed on the box (EF skills are listed below). This is an open reflection, meaning students can convey their thoughts, ideas, emotions, and perceptions by simply filling out a note card. It is their chance to express themselves. In the past some students have wrote about actions they need to work on, actions they have done well with, improvements, something the teacher can do to provide better understanding with certain concepts, or even a simple picture of a smiley face with the words planning and organization listed below it (meaning they feel comfortable and organized within my class). The only caveat is that all comments must in some way connect to the 8 EF skills listed on the box (all are shown below).

  • Planning and Organizing
  • Working Memory
  • Initiation
  • Task Monitoring
  • Self-Monitoring
  • Inhibition
  • Emotional Control
  • Shifting Thinking and Behaviors

Here is an example comment from a student:

This past week I felt very anxious when we were reviewing the essay assignment. Would it be possible for you to review the assignment again with our class and give some examples. That should help me understand what needs to be done. This will help me plan, organize my thoughts, and allow me to set a schedule.

This process has given me an opportunity to understand my students better as individuals. I see how they process, learn, feel, and recognize areas that I can alter to meet their best way of learning. In addition, this give students an open and non-judgemental way of developing a path towards metacognitive thinking.

HOM Reflective Thinking Journal

At the end of each week, or bi-weekly, students reflect in their journals to the question below. This question gives students an opportunity to connect their thinking with the Habits of Mind to the learning environment and/or life outside of school. Within my classroom I have gained significant understanding of how students are recognizing, infusing, and utilizing the habits within their life. I am always excited to read these journals to learn more about my students progress with the habits.

  • What Habit of Mind did you work on this week inside or outside of the classroom?

Here is an example journal from a student:

This week the habit of mind that I feel I best demonstrated was thinking flexibly. I showed this throughout the week in science class by being able to think outside the box and have more than one perspective when trying to figure out answers to hard critical problems. The first thing that I had to do to think flexibly was to first figure out the problem. Once I figured out what my problem was my group and I had to come up with different ways and solutions to solve this problem.

Let’s End with a Question

These two quick beginning of the year takeaways can make a significant impact in understanding your students “thinking” and “actions” within the learning environment. In addition, it helps students discover more about themselves as learners, and how to take action when the learning is problematic.

So, after reading this blog, you should ask yourself this question:

How important is it to know your students as individual first, and learners second?


This post is part of a series. View the full Special Education series by Dan Vollrath here.

See all posts from Dan Vollrath.


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