choose growth over grades

New measurement tools for neurodiverse student progress

8 minute read

We need better tools to measure progress and goal achievement in learning for neurodiverse students. 

At school kids have percentage grades, letter grades, and standardized test percentiles. These measurement tools do not capture the comprehensive and complex achievements of neurodiverse kids. 

For people that think about and do work in non-standard and innovative ways these traditional measurement tools only capture part of the story. Grades on homework and tests provide one end point, one piece of data and the student may not know how to get from point A (not knowing the content) to point B (mastering the content and getting a good grade).

How do we begin to create new tools to measure progress for neurodiverse thinkers and doers? We begin by understanding why the current tools don’t work and then explore new ways to create goals with structure, detail, and buy-in from the kid.

How do we know the old tools of measuring student success aren’t working?

Your kid comes home from school with a 70% on a test. They are inconsolable and feel worthless. They insist they prepared for the test and know the material. You verbally quizzed them the night before the test and you remember that they knew the content inside and out.

What if this student has sensory processing difficulties and the classroom was overstimulating during the test? The percentage grade is easy to calculate for a teacher but serves a demoralizing blow to the kid’s self-esteem. Is that 70% a true measure of the student’s knowledge of the content?

Another example can be an early elementary student who is supposed to read at home every night for 20 minutes and then have the adult write this information on a reading log every night. Ignore for a moment that this creates MORE busywork for the adult. What if child is an avid reader yet despises being told WHEN to read? What if the child can sit down and read for 90 minutes when they are feeling motivated but then bristles at being told they HAVE to read? 

The reading log paints a picture that 90 minutes once a week is wrong because the teacher requires 20 minutes per day each day. So is the adult supposed to impose this regulation on the kid just for the sake of compliance? Isn’t the goal of getting a child to read to increase the child’s JOY and EXPLORATION of reading?

In both examples the measurement tool is easy for the adult to use BUT is a mismatch for the learning style of the neurodiverse student and therefore demoralizing and inaccurate.

Neurodiverse students will give up on themselves and be continually frustrated by the system unless we force a new expectations on learning and progress.

How to recognize and measure kid’s intangible growth and development

Each kid needs an adult to believe in them. This adult can be a parent, caregiver, teacher, coach, family member, or family friend. The prerequisite of the adult is that their mind and heart are truly open to see the child for all of their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

Tangible items are easily measured:  grades on tests, hours spent studying or practicing a sport, score of a game, number of advanced placement classes taken. The ease of this system resides with the adult, thereby placing the responsibility for interpreting and achieving the goals on the neurodiverse kid.

Let’s flip the equation and place more responsibility with the adult.

Intangible skills and achievements take a keen eye to recognize. First, there must be a solid relationship between the adult and the kid. The progress of the kid is a trend built over time and can only be seen by someone who has been consistently observing their efforts.

Second, the adult must have the creativity to place each step, success, and failure in perspective. None of us have a purely upward curve of progress; we ALL made mistakes. Learning from mistakes (without being judged or shamed) is what allows the kid to have the mental and emotional space to determine WHY they failed and WHAT they want to do differently next time.

Third, the adults have to remove their own personal standards of success from the child. Just because one adult got straight A’s in school or earned a specific degree from a university doesn’t mean those are the only ways to mark success. You must respect the child as their own person who is trying to learn what FEELS successful to them. Is it winning a basketball game with their team? Is it learning about a new science concept and creating a project to apply this knowledge? Is it beating a difficult level in video game?

Adults need to COACH the student to success and not micromanage or impose limitations on the definition of success. Although this is easier said than done in our society where grades, titles, and labels are till heavily valued.

How to we begin to redefine success for students?

SMART goals in the context of school

If you have ever had to write a SMART goal for yourself then you know what they are. Here is a brief definition of the acronym:

Specific

Measurable

Attainable

Relevant

Time-based

Why am I mentioning SMART goals in the context of students with learning differences? 

Because I feel like the grades are NOT an accurate measurement of the knowledge of the students. Grades tell one part of the story and they can be subjective depending on the structure of the assignment compared to the cognitive process of the child.

My kids have been writing goals in school folders since kindergarten, whether it be weekly or quarterly goals. This seems like a fluffy exercise and I am not sure how deep and comprehensive the goals are or how the kids are being held accountable. And to the goals actually tie to the LEARNING PROCESS and not just the final result of a grade?

What if we were to help students write meaningful SMART goals for the learning in every subject? The grade on each assignment, quiz, and test would be woven into the SMART goal. The grades themselves are pieces of FEEDBACK – a piece of data relating back to the goal. A grade is a “Measurable” piece but it should not be the only one we deem important.

Of course a grade is “Specific” and that is why it’s a favorite of adults everywhere because it is easy for us to read and interpret (or so we think – more on this later).

A grade checks all the boxes of SMART.

However we are interested in the DEVELOPMENT of the whole child and overlapping skills such as communication, critical thinking, relating concepts to one another, organization, and planning. A fantastic SMART goal should take ALL of these factors into account.

For example, creating a SMART goal for a history lesson can include not only memorizing dates and facts but understanding what preceding events led up to a historical moment, organizing one’s thoughts into a comprehensive and accurate report/presentation/video, and communicating the knowledge learned to the teacher. 

Testing the student’s knowledge in multiple ways and providing various mediums in which the student can create a project allows for a better view of their understanding. This also allows the student to attain mastery of the subject since they are immersed in the process of creating content to demonstrate their understanding.

An example of a SMART goal for the history lesson could look like this:

GoalLearn about the Holocaust in History class
SpecificLearn about the Holocaust by reading books/articles, watching documentaries, and visiting museums
MeasurableGroup project involving individual research, group peer checks and collaboration, and presentation given to class and teacher
AttainableStudents have access to books, computers, and the field trip to the museum to absorb the knowledge
RelevantStudent will share information with the class
Time-basedFour weeks given by the teacher to accomplish the learning tasks
SMART Goal for a student in history class

A comprehensive SMART goal covers more ground and paints a deeper picture compared to one test on paper or a computer. Creating a SMART goal and checking the student’s progress against the goal takes more effort on the part of the teacher but results in a more CONFIDENT and EMPOWERED student. This is a student who is learning that they have control over their learning process and that they can help choose how they channel that effort to reach the goal.

WOOP goals for neurodiverse learners

I learned about SMART goals early in my career however I learned about WOOP goals just a few months ago.

The acronym WOOP represents:

Wish

Outcome

Obstacle

Plan

Now I am not as familiar with creating and implementing WOOP goals however it seems related to SMART goals. 

WOOP goals can be created for personal development. For example, I really want to get better at remembering to pack everything I need in my backpack the night before a school day.

Wish:  pack everything in my school backpack 

Outcome:  nothing is forgotten and I have all the supplies I need to be successful at school

Obstacle:  I am tired at night and usually don’t feel like preparing for school

Plan:  After dinner and a shower I get a small amount of energy and I can use that energy to make myself pack my backpack. I will also write a post-it note and stick it to my bathroom mirror to remind myself.

However we can also make a WOOP goal for academic learning just like we made the SMART goal. One example looks like this:

Wish:  The student wants to become a better writer.

Outcome:  The student will have the stamina and perseverance to write or type a five-paragraph story about the topic of their choosing.

Obstacle:  The student is a slower writer/typer and thinks faster than they can write/type. Then they become frustrated that they cannot get the good ideas out of their head and they quit.

Plan:  The student will spend 20 minutes each day at home on writing/typing practice to build stamina and muscle/brain connections from the repetitive movements.

A WOOP goal for a kid’s learning process, just like a SMART goal, gives the student a recipe to follow to achieve the goal. The trouble with asking them to study for and take a test is that there is no recipe. The process is ambiguous or undefined and they also don’t know how to employ their natural strengths to achieve the goal.

Creating a new measurement system for progress of neurodiverse students

We need a new measurement system to accurately and comprehensively capture a neurodiverse student’s academic progress. 

SMART goals or WOOP goals developed collaboratively between kids and adults can greatly improve the attitude of the child and increase the probability of achieving the goals. 

The child is empowered because they have an active role in the goal-defining process. They will develop, with the help of the adults, a process that is tailored just for them. 

For kids with ADHD and executive function challenges these methods of goal-setting provide concrete steps and take some of the planning and sequencing burden off of their brains. Their brainpower can focus on the learning if it is not simultaneously trying to creating the steps in the process.

SMART and WOOP goals also allow for reflection on what worked and what did not work. A child reflecting on this process (with the guidance of adults) is also developing their metacognition – an awareness of how they think about their thinking. 

Metacognition is part of the executive function of the brain and one that can be challenging for kids with ADHD to develop. Effective goal-setting and goal-reflection provide the opportunity to improve metacognition.

The grade on homework or a test simply becomes a PIECE of the goal and NOT the entire goal itself. We need creativity and open mindsets on the part of the adults (teachers, parents, caregivers, coaches) to be willing to start creating and using SMART and WOOP goals with neurodiverse kids. 

Give the kids processes and guidance that help them learn confidently.

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Related posts: Focus on the Learning Process Not the Grade, How to encourage kids to find and use motivation

2 Comments

  1. I love the WOOP goals and I’d like to incorporate that into my piano lessons by having the kids work with their adult at home to set the goal. In private lessons, when I give a beginning student a new method book, we often look toward the end of the book to see what they will be able to play. We skim the book to see all the new concepts they will learn and we discuss about how long they expect it will take them. If they are more advanced, then I let them tell me what piece or kind of piece they would like to play and we set that as a goal piece.

    1. What a great idea Laura! I like how you are collaborating with the student so they feel like they are part of the goal-setting process.

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