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How to help kids be okay with things being hard

Monday, January 24th, 2011

A while back, I was working online with a younger student on a math problem that was challenging for him. He was getting frustrated.

“Look, kiddo,” I said (or words to that effect), “when you’re doing something and it feels hard, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It just means that you’re learning something challenging. Everyone feels that way when they’re learning something new that’s hard. You’re not alone.”

My student got really quiet. There was a long pause.

“Thank you for that,” he said quietly.

I wasn’t expecting such a solemn response, and I wasn’t expecting gratitude, either. But then I realized—maybe no one had ever told him this before! Maybe every other time he had struggled over something new, he’d thought he was defective or inadequate.

I brought this up when I was talking shop with a friend who also teaches. She shared a similar story about having a new piano student break down in tears at his first lesson with her. When she mentioned this to the kid’s mother, the mother brushed it off and just said, “Oh, yeah, he’s been crying through all of his piano lessons for at least a year.”

But when the kid cried, my friend took it upon herself to ask him why. He talked to her about how he was frustrated and talked about what he’d rather be doing than playing piano. They had a whole discussion about stuff that, apparently, everyone else had ignored or glossed over.

Coincidentally, after that talk, he never cried again in a lesson with my friend, and ended up being one of her best students.

How can we make kids okay with things being hard? I think it helps to state the obvious, even if it seems … too obvious. It’s normal if something feels hard. Or, If you’re crying, something’s wrong and maybe we should talk about it.

As adults, it’s easy to forget that things that now seem obvious to us were not always so clear. But at some point, someone explained these things to us, or we figured them out the hard way, on our own.

Sometimes I’m afraid to tell my students these obvious things because I’m worried they might think I’m being cheesy or meddling in their emotions. But it hasn’t happened yet, which leads me to believe that they really need to hear this stuff.

Related posts:
I cried myself to sleep over my math homework
On optimal challenge
Algebra tears
Case study: confused by math instruction in a foreign language

11 Comments on “How to help kids be okay with things being hard”

  • TutorTrainer on May 6th 3:05 pm

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Unfortunately, the way we usually teach mathematics teaches students something false about mathematics: any mathematical problem is solvable in approximately 3 minutes or less. (Actually, I’m sure our teaching teaches *many* false notions about mathematics, but this is the one relevant at the moment!)

    Any student who takes longer than 5 minutes–whether it is “their fault” or the “problem’s fault”–will therefore likely feel frustration not just because they haven’t solved the problem, but because they “should” have solved the problem already. It certainly never takes the teacher more than a couple minutes to solve it at the blackboard!

    If only they could see professional mathematicians at work…!

  • Rebecca Zook on May 6th 10:58 pm

    Yes, it’s good to set the expectation that if something is taking a while, nothing is wrong with you! 🙂 Just yesterday I was preparing for a student and I could not figure out how the textbook jumped from one step of the proof to another. It was like, where did this come from?? So I just sat down and played around with it until I figured it out — so I’d be prepared to explain it to my students instead of it just being something arbitrary. But not everyone knows they’re allowed to sit and tinker with the problems. 🙂

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  • Laura on October 8th 7:26 am

    These kids are so lucky to have you in their lives. What you’re saying to them is not only that their feelings have merit, but also letting them know how their brains work. It’s hard sometimes. Understanding how our brains learn is part of metacognition. We’re able to think about thinking. Kids need to know that learning isn’t getting a concept or not getting, that the brain grows in comprehension just as bodies grow muscle—-through use. Mistakes, struggles, and misunderstanding may seem negative in learning but they’re not.

  • Rebecca Zook on October 8th 1:48 pm

    Thank you so much, Laura! I really appreciate your bringing in metacognition, and also that it is not black-or-white, get-it-or-not-get-it, but a process!! Yay!!

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  • domain on September 29th 9:49 pm

    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
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