Small Wins for Growing Habits and Skills with Diverse Learners


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. 



Let’s be real. One of the hardest things for people to do is build a new habit. It takes commitment, focus, drive, and a constant reminder or way to trigger that action. In the learning environment habits play an equally important role as mastering curriculum. For many students habits may come naturally and become part of a routine—something they don’t even think about or focus on…they just do it. For students with learning disabilities, habits of mind do not come easily, making learning even more complicated due to this missing ingredient. On top of the deficits that come into play for students with learning disabilities, such as, retaining information, processing, skill performance, and executive functioning, building a new habit demands a plan of action and the support of teachers. In the end, when students with learning disabilities take an opportunity to build a habit the more inclined they will be with improving their academic performance, skills, and most importantly, confidence.

In this piece I will discuss three strategies for building growth with a Habit of Mind for students with learning disabilities. The habit will be connected to the classroom where students need support, focus, and a mindful path to success within a particular skill. And, through “Small Wins” the ability to build a skill by the use of a habit should display gradual growth and increased self-monitoring.


Small Win #1

Persisting with Reading Closely

Issue: In a classroom setting many students with learning disabilities find it hard to read closely – a focus on significant details and a precise understanding of text meaning. Many times this is due to a lack of focus, impulsive thinking, cognitive overload, or just reading to get it over with. Basically, students are not comprehending what is actually written on the pages. An example would be in reading the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The vocabulary and style of writing is challenging hence students give up easily, and/or their mind wanders to other thoughts and ideas outside of the novel. They don’t persist, remain unfocused, and throw in the towel at the sign of struggle.

To increase the performance of Persisting with building the skill of Close Reading, this “Small Win” process should bring forth opportunity and growth for successful change.

Small Win Process:

  1. What is the goal?

Build the skill of Close Reading with the habit Persisting

  1. How will this happen in “Small Wins?”

For a week at the beginning of class students will be given a minute to read anything they chose on their phones or iPads. This time is dedicated to full focus on the screen and nothing else. At the end of a minute each student will briefly summarize their reading. The next week students will up the game of reading for two minutes and after each session summarize their reading. The week after it will become three minutes, and so on, and so on…you get the picture.

  1. The trigger will be they can choose any source off the internet on their phone or iPad

Twitter, CNN, CBS, etc. The idea that students can use their phones/iPads in the classroom and chose their piece of reading – now that is enticing. Choice is key!


Over time this becomes a daily habit with Persisting, all while increasing the ability to stay focused on a reading selection. In addition, the long-term outcome is centered on bringing forth mindfulness of maintaining focus during readings of big novels within the classroom, and most importantly, understanding meaning and details within text.


Small Win #2

Organizing and Planning with Metacognition

Issue: The ability to keep organized and planned for students with a learning disability can be a challenging task. A task that can impede learning material, staying focused, maintaining consistent workflow, and overall success within the classroom. Too often students rush to get their papers, binders, notebooks, and other materials in order so they can move onto the next class or activity, yet in the end create an even bigger mess for themselves. For example, when the bell rings to signal the end of class, students often shove papers and jam books into their book bags without any thought of organization or planning. Over time as they repeat this process this skill begins to deteriorate. When it come to students with learning disabilities this skill is crucial to their success. When there is no organization or planning for students with learning disabilities they tend to lose focus, become anxious, shut down, and forget deadlines and activities.

The neurological process that lets us prioritize, organize, and analyze is connected to executive functioning. To build the executive functioning skill of staying Planned and Organized students will focus on the habit of thinking about your thinking: Metacognition. This “Small Win” process should gradually build metacognitve focus in the ability to stay organized and planned within the classroom.

Small Win Process:

  1. What is the goal?

To increase the executive functioning skill of Planning and Organizing through Metacognition.

  1. How will this happen in “Small Wins?”

Each day students will be given a two-minute break between activities to take a mental rest, transition from one activity to the next, and to simply relax and let off some steam. The only caveat with this two-minute break is that students will take the action of planning and organizing in a way best suited for them. It will simply start with students taking 15 seconds to organize or plan in some aspect – it can be as simple as writing down a reminder in their notebook, dating an assignment, organizing their pencils, or filing away a worksheet in their binder. After a week of engaging in this action, students will increase their time to 30 seconds. The week after 45 seconds, next week 60 seconds, and so on…until it becomes a habit during break time.

  1. The trigger for this process is announcing that “It is break time!” When students hear this statement they automatically know that it starts with organizing, then they can blow off some steam.


As students continue with this process the hope is that after some time the skill of organizing and planning becomes a gratifying feeling. In addition, students will hopefully recognize a strategy and action that works best for them in staying organized and planned…that being the habit of practicing Metacognition.


Small Win #3

Working Memory through Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

Issue: Quite often when teachers end class early students tend to congregate by the door, listen to music, or text with friends. This time could be used in a more effective way…like increasing their Working Memory. Working memory is the ability to store information for a certain amount of time. For students with learning disabilities working memory deficits are common and can negatively impact their ability to remember information. One way to assist with this problem is to have students get into the habit of reflecting at the end of class on the material learned for the day. This can be done in a variety of ways. For example, in the last three minutes of class two students can both write on a note card three things they learned about volcanoes, and then swap note cards. Then next class each student will report to one another what the other wrote. This not only reminds the student of what they wrote but gives opportunity to see a different perspective of learning from their partner.

To build the executive functioning skill of Working Memory students will focus on Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision. This “Small Win” process should gradually build the working memory process, and as time goes on develop deeper and more in-depth thinking that is clear and precise…which will eventually become a habit.

Small Win Process:

  1. What is the goal?

To increase Working Memory through developing Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision.

  1. How will this happen in “Small Wins?”

Every class will end four minutes early. For students it will be seen as a gracious gesture of the teacher by letting them shut down shop early so they can chill out and talk with friends. Although, as a teacher you are providing opportunity for students to reflect on class and share their thoughts with a partner. During this time students will simply write down on a note card, or in their notebook, a clear and precise piece(s) of information, comments, or big ideas. This process will begin by taking 45 seconds of the four minutes to write it down and exchange with a partner. The goal is for each student to keep the note card and share next class. After two weeks the time will go up to 75 seconds, the next two weeks will be 90 seconds, and so on.

  1. The trigger is that class ends four minutes early. Although some of this time is delegated for reflection and recording with a partner, there is still opportunity to chill out with friends and of course check Snapchat!


Over time as this becomes a daily habit it will help students reflect on their learning. At the beginning of the next class students can meet up with their partner to review their reflection from the day before, or share with the class. In addition, the hope of students being clear and precise with their reflections will help in communicating their ideas.


Let’s celebrate a victory!

There is something to be said about accomplishing a goal…and even a small goal. When success is achieved in any goal we set for ourselves it does deserve a pat on the back, congrats, or even a little celebration. When we as teachers set goals and challenge students, it shows we believe in their ability and character. When they see we care and show recognition…that’s the biggest victory of all.


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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