• John M. Furrow, PhD

A Different Perspective:

A recent study designed to empirically define academic success concluded that educational success is inclusive of academic achievement, attainment of learning objectives, acquisition of desired skills and competencies, satisfaction, persistence, and post-college performance (York, Gibons & Rankin, 2015). There is little doubt that the actual definition of success may change from one school to the next dependent upon their mission statement. For instance, in my school we desire for our students to bless the world as disciples of Jesus Christ. This requires students to develop the necessary skills, competencies, and social skills to follow God’s call in their life throughout the full extent of their educational endeavors.

There can be many reasons that students fail to achieve academic success and for some those reasons can involve cognitive and emotional struggles that stretch beyond accommodations offered to those who need them. A major factor for those with learning differences can be the confidence and belief that they are actually capable of success. It has been my experience as an educator, a parent of children with learning differences, and the husband of a therapist, that a student must first believe they are capable of learning before they can begin showing significant cognitive gains. Therefore, this may be the first and most significant role of the educational therapist.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs proposes that an individual must develop a comfort level in the areas of basic needs (physiological and safety) and psychological needs (belonging and self-esteem) before they can achieve to their full potential (Maslow, 1943). If Maslow’s theory is correct it has great implication to education in general, and working with the struggling learner in particular. Many highly intelligent and creative students are placed in an educational environment that asks them to act and respond in the same manner as everyone else in the room. Information is presented and regurgitated in a particular manner that does not connect with what a struggling learner might know or understand. When the student struggles they begin to feel inadequate at best, or told they are incapable at worst. According to Maslow, this would be a breakdown in the stages of belonging and self-esteem, preventing the student from successful achievement.

As a school administrator I had a student in my office for behavioral issues a few years ago. In an attempt to get to the heart of his issues in the classroom he said this, “I tried to do well (in class) and all I got were D’s. I could tell my teachers were frustrated with me, my parents were frustrated, and I was frustrated. Why should I even try if I am always going to fail, so I try to make the best of it and have fun in class.” The point is not whether or not the teachers and parents were actually frustrated. The science of motivational theory says that this young man had given up on learning because he felt he was incapable of learning.

For this reason, I am convinced that the first job of an educational therapist is to breakdown the emotional walls that separate a student from learning and convince them they are capable of achieving. It is true that successful achievement may need to be defined for a struggling learner, but the student must believe they are capable and they must have someone else who believes the same. I witnessed this as a father of a struggling learner. My daughter was told by a teacher that she should consider not going to college because she was not capable of learning some of the material in core subject classes. This was devastating to her and made it nearly impossible for her to learn. God blessed us with a wonderful educational therapist who was able to break this chain of negative thinking and convince my daughter she was able to achieve her academic goals and succeed.

Fast forward a few years to college. My daughter was told by a Foreign Language professor to drop the class because there was no way she would pass the class. This new and confident learner took these words as a challenge. She took it upon herself to get a tutor, got to work and passed the class with an exceptional grade that any student would be proud of. The initial efforts of the educational therapist to convince her that she was able to learn paved the way for an insecure, beaten down learner to become a confident and determined student who is now an educational therapist herself.

As the husband of an educational therapist I have also witnessed the difference a student’s self-confidence can have. Numerous times I have seen struggling and emotionally desolate students excited when the light bulb of knowledge turns on in their brain. I have heard students chanting, singing, and dancing at the realization that they are capable of more than they have ever imagined. My observation is that this is essential to unlocking their potential.

I am a believer in educational therapy as a husband because I have seen the results of my wife’s work. I am a believer as a parent because I saw in my own children how it transformed their learning. I am also a believer as an administrator because I have seen the “I can’t” student turn into the “Just give me a chance and I’ll show you” student.

In addition to scheduling, the biggest apprehension that administration faces with educational therapy is the patience required to see tangible results. Patience for these results is required because, before a student can learn, they must believe they can learn. Once this occurs watch out. These struggling learners who believe in what they are able to do become risk takers with endless possibilities. Like I always say, the B student will work for the A student, but the C student may own the company. All educators need to do is break down those walls of doubt and insecurity and that is where the educational therapist shines.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50. 370-396.

York T., Gibons, C., & Rankin, S. (2015); Defining and Measuring Academic Success. Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation. 20 (5) March.

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