Changing the Game and Leveling the Playing Field


After a lively conversation last week with an exasperated middle school teacher about students having “behavior problems” during writer’s workshop in her classroom, I went home and picked up the book of one of my most trusted gurus: Dr. Ross Greene (author four books including Lost at School and the Explosive Child). One of Dr. Greene’s most central themes is this: kids do well if they can. Instead of seeing behavioral challenges as a sign of lagging motivation, he asks educators and caregivers to perceive challenging behavior as a sign of lagging skills. In other words, when a student is struggling to meet the expectations of the classroom, it’s on us to ask, “what skill has this child not yet learned?” As Dr. Greene reminds us, if she could do well, she would do well.


I applied this wisdom to my own classroom during the early days of my career as a 6th-grade teacher. Initially, my requests to complete writing exercises were often met with complaints, avoidance, or by seeking out more preferable activities (i.e., poking a neighbor, or, perhaps, rolling on the floor). Taking Dr. Greene’s advice to heart, I approached their behaviors through a new lens: when students avoid, challenge or “act out,” it’s our job as detectives to determine which skills need developing so that the demands of the task are met. Given the ubiquity of technology both in and out of the classroom, we might also ask ourselves: “How could technology be used to address this skill gap and level the playing field for students?”

When I followed up with the exasperated middle school teacher, and we revisited the writing and behavior challenges in her class, I showed her the app “Book Creator” on her iPad. I showed her how students could record their voices on each page of their books instead of writing. This way, they can still craft a narrative without having to type. “This is a game changer!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide.

In my teaching practice, I frequently used speech-to-text software with my students. I watched in awe as some of my students (for whom producing a single sentence of writing was laborious and overwhelming) suddenly started pouring out paragraph after paragraph, page after page, simply by speaking into their devices and watching the words appear in text on their screens.

When integrated thoughtfully, technology has the capacity not only to captivate and motivate but also to take the sting out of lagging skills for all learners.

Here are some ideas for manageable supports for students with lagging skills:

1.) Can’t write it? Say it!

  • Speech-to-text applications (like Google Read&Write) allow spoken thoughts to instantly appear as written text on a google doc.
  • Apps like Book Creator, Explain Everything, and Educreations allow students to record their voices to bring their stories, ideas, and thinking to life.

2.) Can’t read it? Hear it!

  • The student who can’t get through her website research assignment at the pace of her peers can use apps like Read&Write or the Chrome extension “Speakit” to hear text from websites read aloud.
  • Students can use text-to-speech applications to hear their writing read back aloud to enhance the revision process and catch errors.

3.) Can’t understand it? See it!

  • Younger learners and English Learners can use Read&Write’s Picture Dictionary to see visual representations of challenging words as they read.

Dr. Greene reminds us that “doing well is always preferable to not doing well.” When we assume the role of a detective, we approach challenging behaviors in the classroom as opportunities to better understand student needs. By targeting supports around these needs, we dissipate the stress and challenge of the moment. Done well, the student feels empowered and capable. As the middle school teacher said, it’s a game changer.

Greene, Ross. “Kids Do Well if They Can.” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 90, No. 03, November 2008, pp. 160-167.

“A More Compassionate, Productive, Effective Approach to Understanding and Helping Behaviorally Challenging Kids.” Retrieved February 24, 2016 from

Katie Wright
Leadership and Professional Learning Specialist, MTLC


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