Professional development to support struggling students

The role of professional development and training

03/21/2011  |  STEVE FADDEN, Ph.D.
Teaching Practices

Educators are keenly aware of the expectation that they continually improve their knowledge and abilities as instructors. From learning about changes in our understanding of student profiles, to new methods to address instruction in core content areas, teachers engage in professional development as a necessary aspect of their profession. The need for professional development opportunities is especially keen for educators who serve struggling students, such as students with learning disabilities, language issues, social-emotional challenges, and those from inadequately-resourced or unsupportive environments.

While obtaining professional development is important to remain well-qualified, it also provides a helpful window through which instructors can understand the world of education beyond the students and classes they teach. Teachers share challenges, introduce new methods, and raise questions they might not otherwise broach in front of their peers or administrators. Summer professional development and training opportunities offer a setting that enables instructors to reflect on their experiences and challenges of past classes without the distraction of administrative and classroom concerns typically present during the teaching semester. By sharing with other teachers and staff, educators can once again experience learning as a community, inspiring insights, and leading to new ideas and approaches that can be implemented in future practice.

Benefits of Comprehensive Professional Development

Of the many types of professional development opportunities available, participants need to consider the primary goals they wish to achieve. If the goal of professional development is to improve the academic performance of students, then the findings from a 2007 report prepared for the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) are particularly informative. Researchers examined over 1,300 studies to identify the effectiveness of teacher professional development programs. Only nine studies met established criteria for scientific rigor. Due to the small number of studies available, only lower and upper elementary education (grades K-5) environments were represented, across a range of content areas (e.g. English/Language Arts, Reading, Math, Science). The results from the analysis revealed that students experienced significant academic improvements as a result of professional development programs that lasted at least 14 hours, and averaged 49 hours, of overall contact time.

While these results are clearly limited in scope and applicability to educators across the broad range of disciplines and grades involved in education, they highlight the importance of contact time if the desired result is an improvement in student academic performance. However, there are many other goals for professional development, including learning about emerging trends in academic practice and changes to student profiles, developing confidence in one’s ability to implement a new method, and fostering a network of collaboration and support from other teachers. These goals can be met through a number of professional development venues, from multi-day summer workshops with educators within specific disciplines, to institutes that span a range of topics for a variety of personnel, to online webinars and even hybrid approaches that combine asynchronous delivery of content with periodic, interactive discussions.

Understanding Professional Development Needs

In our experience working with teachers who serve struggling students, professional development is most effective when it starts with an understanding of the goals and expectations of the teachers and administration. Effective professional development should begin with a needs assessment process to identify the specific questions that are expected to be answered, and the context in which the teachers and staff operate. Informative assessments include interviews with teachers, reviews of aggregated student data (e.g. demographics, academic profiles, emerging populations), surveys of practices and qualifications (e.g. degree of specialization, typical methods, problems encountered), and exposure to the institutional mission and strategy. Assessment feedback should then be used to tailor the professional development content and activities to best serve the needs and expectations of the stakeholders involved.

Typical professional development requests for addressing the needs of struggling students include background information and effective practices for specific student profiles (e.g. Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit, psychiatric conditions), as well as techniques to remediate skills (e.g. reading, writing, science, math), and training on how to use assistive technology as part of the curriculum. However, the assessment process typically reveals a deeper set of issues and concerns.

For example, one of the most commonly-requested topics we hear about deals with transitions, typically from high school to college, school to work, or work to school. Supporting students in transition is a challenge for many institutions as they wrestle with inadequacies in our current “pipeline” model of education. Students advance from one grade or institution to the next without adequate preparation for success. Professional development in this area covers topics that emphasize the development of effective “habits of mind” as well as the implementation of educational strategies.

Preparing students for transition requires them to be aware of the “hidden curriculum,” which encompasses all of the skills and strategies that students are expected to learn, but are not explicitly taught. For example, employers, colleges, and other institutions that “receive” students from earlier grade levels express concern that students lack the ability to work well in groups. When teachers assign group assignments, they often don’t include direct instruction in how to act as a group member. As a result, group assignments are often dominated by one or two “leaders” who are more concerned about their grades than the learning process, while others engage in “social loafing” and let the rest of the group do all the work. Other common topics associated with the hidden curriculum include managing time and resources, demonstrating a strong work ethic, applying skills to a new domain, and the communicating in appropriate ways to different types of audiences. 

Another common request is for professional development on effective instruction, especially how instructors can teach diverse, struggling students in the same classroom environment. This topic includes techniques teachers can use to help students master specific skills, understand strategies that can help learning and memory, and identify when to implement different multimodal methods. It is important to note that a challenge for teachers often involves engaging each student without creating conditions in which some students are bored because they readily understand the content, while others are overwhelmed, and yet others feel excluded. Our approach to effective instruction is one that embraces universal design in education: intentionally developing activities and curricula in anticipation of a broad range of learners who will struggle with different aspects of the lesson. Instead of developing different approaches, materials, and interactions for different kinds of learners, universal design is about creating a unified approach in which all learners are able to participate and benefit.

A final area of need involves supporting a student’s ability to be a successful learner. Developing the skills of self-regulation, self-advocacy, and self-reflection are all critical, not only for struggling students, but for all students. These skills are each connected to the development of metacognition, or “thinking about one’s thinking process.” Metacognition is commonly cited as a cornerstone of our ability to learn, and teaching students how they can develop their metacognitive abilities is a critical skill that needs to be taught directly, especially to students who struggle. Teachers can promote the development of metacognition through the use of frequent formative assessment, opportunities for self-reflection, and coaching-based methods of questioning.

Improving Teaching Practice and Organizational Culture

While professional development offers ways for educators to hone their skills and learn about current issues and trends in their respective fields, it cannot make up for the benefits of a strong, learning-oriented organizational culture. No amount of new knowledge of trends and techniques can address the consequences of an organization that does not value education, respect differences in practice, and reward innovation and the holding of high standards. To be truly effective as a mechanism that benefits both students and professionals alike, professional development needs to occur in a context in which the organization is always learning and open to change. Administrators, staff, service providers, and even vendors should be involved in opportunities to ensure that the organization understands the goals and value of the professional development experience in the larger context of the school or college.

To encourage stakeholder inclusion, our organization has been working with regional hosts and partners to provide workshops and institutes to teachers, administrators, and service providers. This model is typically more cost-effective than sending a group of personnel to a remote site for professional development, and it allows for greater interaction and participation of personnel who serve students in multiple environments, from classroom, to counseling, to extracurricular programming, to administration. By ensuring that the community of stakeholders is involved in professional development ventures, summer training experiences can become an excellent opportunity to evaluate institutional progress and set expectations for the new school year.

For more information about the programs and services offered by the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, visit

Steven Fadden, Ph.D., is Vice President for Research and Institute Operations at Landmark College, an associate’s granting institution that exclusively serves students with learning disabilities and attention disorders. Dr. Fadden enjoys delivering professional development in cognitive psychology and education, effective instruction, and human computer interaction For more information visit
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