Special Education and Habits of Mind: Series by Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D.

“Habits of Mind is the bridge between old behaviors to a newly discovered set of productive actions.”

In the field of special education, students with a learning disability encompass a diverse group that present a wide range of abilities that need to be challenged in order to excel in a general education curriculum and in life after high school. With this in mind, students with a learning disability need to develop the Habits of Mind that students without a learning disability present. Just as teachers present particular habits of mind through deep questioning and analyzing of their own practice, students with a learning disability need the opportunities to emulate this daily in and outside of the classroom. To do this, we as educators need to recognize how to blend dispositional thinking into the learning of students with a learning disability.

In my work with the Habits of Mind, I have found over time that through habitual practice with the 16 dispositions, their effects can successfully strengthen and reinforce productive behaviors for students with a learning disability. To demonstrate the importance of Habits of Mind within the special education learning environment, as well as in an inclusive setting, I am going to assemble informative blogs centered around specific strategies, tips, instructional approaches, and a variety of other topics in working with students with a learning disability.

As these blogs are focused on informing and proliferating my knowledge in reference to the habits and special education, it is equally important to hear your questions and ideas in reference to this topic. That being said, please feel free to send me topics, questions, or ideas you would like to learn more about. In addition, I invite you to share your own practices within the classroom.

Send requests to: In addition, follow my social media feed on Twitter @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

View all posts by Daniel Vollrath.

If you are not familiar with David & Goliath, a story of more than just biblical proportions, I will sum it up like this. Dating back to the 4th century in the Valley of Elah, David, a young shepherd boy against all odds takes down the mighty, armed warrior Goliath. Alright, so what is the point? This event speaks to the idea of confronting challenges in life, even ones that present almost sure failure, yet the opposite happens, and success is etched in stone. In our world today this is what we call an underdog. An underdog in life is often viewed as an individual with less power, weakened ability, and underdeveloped attributes, commonly identified as unsuccessful. Although, an underdog can have many different skills, not viewed as common or recognized, which can bring forth the ability to overcome and conquer. The question is, how?

It is early November and nearing the end of quarter one for 22 sophomore students within a inclusive English classroom. Since the beginning of the year students have been consistent with their routines. All students are outgoing and respectful individuals although present various unsuccessful habits. Five students consistently come unprepared, four students are disorganized and can never find their homework, many students are constantly texting and checking their phones causing them to miss information, and almost half of the class can never complete an assigned project on time. What is the teacher to do?

If you have a classroom like this, hopefully this blog will lend some insight and strategies on how to approach a change for a more effective learning environment while heightening your ability to recognize the importance of executive functioning skills within your students.

Often, as teachers, we don’t take the time to consider who our students are, both “inside and out.” Each school year brings a new group of students, personalities, cultural backgrounds, family experiences, strengths, weaknesses, areas of struggles, interests, and levels of achievement. These are attributes that as teachers we need to identify. This can be done through conversations, writing prompts, conferencing, speaking with parents, observations, prior year teacher reports, and by simply building a rapport with students. Although, what is blind to most teachers is the ability to read into students minds, emotions, and feelings. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play for teachers.

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.

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.

The bite-size and full-size candy cane analogy for this article serves to represent the ability to grow as learners and individuals in developing Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning skills. In anything we do in life the importance of improving our thinking capacity, learning process, and productive actions are critical. For some students the ability to master these skills comes naturally—they have a tendency to acquire, apply, and build upon them with success. Although for diverse learners this process can be complicated, frustrating, and difficult to put in play. No matter how hard they try these skills do not blossom or proliferate with a smooth transition. It takes work, consistency, commitment, and a bit of a bite-sized approach.

As teachers it is our responsibility to hold students accountable for their learning. Often this is done by assigning a letter grade. Not only is this letter grade meant to reflect measurable learning, it can potentially serve as a misconstrued symbol for student’s belief, attitude, and confidence within themselves as learners. Furthermore, it could represent how they internalize their capabilities, and what direction they take when they fail or confront challenges. Obviously this is not the purpose of a report card yet reality is that many children perceive themselves as a reflection of their grades.

This article is not about report cards or grades, it is about resiliency. By resiliency in the context of learning, I mean how students “bounce back” when they experience failure, and “hurdles” they encounter and overcome in order to reach success. Additionally, I feel it is safe to say that Habits of Mind plays a significant role in building resilience. Habits such as striving for accuracy, metacognition, taking responsible risks, thinking interdependently, and thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, to name a few.

So, how can we develop resiliency and Habits of Mind when setbacks occur with students?

The impulsive reach for a cell phone will always remain an instant source of connection while simultaneously serving as a constant distraction; this just not being in school, but in life beyond the classroom.

Let’s be realistic: this is just as much of a problem with adults as it is children. When teachers model instant access and an ability to check a missed call, Facebook update, or a text message in the middle of class, what message does that send to students? The saying goes, and it is true, “What we permit we promote.” Although, what if we could decrease cell phone use and set strategies to remedy these issues in the form of increasing productive habits and executive functioning skills. And, all while directing and steering that internal compass within students to actually want to eliminate distractions, and instead build success. Is this possible?

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