Is it possible that your willingness to help your students might actually be hindering their growth? As teachers, we intend to help our students learn as much as possible as we are often measured by our students’ successes, but is our eagerness to help accidentally sabotaging our students? Are you teaching helplessness?
We work with many different professionals as a classroom teacher. We deal with other teachers, interventionists, support staff such as Educational Assistants, speech-language supports and then outside systems such as social workers, occupational therapists and private medical professionals. The goal of all these people is to have students be successful.
But sometimes students need to struggle. When you take away the struggle, you might actually be preventing learning from happening. In fact, you might be reinforcing negative behaviours such as learned helplessness.
Wait! We are not in any way accusing you of doing this, but we do want you to think about your teaching practices and see if you might be teaching helplessness. We examined our practices carefully to come up with a few things we were doing to accidentally sabotage our students.
Sometimes when you’re in a hurry, wait time is a pain in the butt, but truthfully our students need it. Lots of students take and need time to process what is being asked of them and then formulate an answer.
If you have students who jump on top of other students’ answers, have a conversation about how and when you want students to answer you. We eliminated raising hands. Instead, we ask a question and all of our students know we will be counting to ten and then asking someone. If the person needs more time to figure out the answer, they can just say they are thinking. Then we wait.
Our students have learned we will wait for an answer (even if it takes loooooong time).
Prior to this we would have students who knew we wouldn’t wait too long. They knew we’d ask another student and move on. Those students learned how to “outwait” us.
If your students learn you don’t have time for them, they won’t bother doing the thinking. Wait them out. They will relearn that you will wait for as long as it takes.
Remember to not turn the waiting time into a game or punishment. Just wait patiently and remind all your students to do the same. Waiting for a student shouldn’t be embarrassing for anyone. While the one student is preparing their answer remind all the rest of the students to have their answers ready in case you want another opinion.
We once had a student bring us a ball of masking tape, tin foil and paper. He was so proud of it. To this day we don’t know exactly what it was supposed to be. We jumped in before he had the chance to speak.
The instinct is to jump in and give feedback about what the student can do to improve. We noticed some students wouldn’t self-reflect or come up with improvements before coming to us. They didn’t get feedback from peers, use our checklists, look at the expectations or even check to see if they had finished the task.
They learned we would tell them what to fix. The most common question, “Is this good?”
In an effort to help change this behaviour, we decided humour was the way to go (because that’s what worked with this group). We answered the question with, “No.” And then we would make a silly face.
They started to ask better questions. Instead of “is this done?” “am I finished?” “is this good enough?” we started to hear questions like “Can you read my paragraph to make sure it makes sense?” “When you look at this can you tell it’s a spaceship?”
Students learned to be specific. They learned to look at their own work to see what possible improvements could be made.
They learned to ask each other these questions. When students talk to each other to get feedback, it frees up so much of your time. If you want to read more, check out our post: How to Give Amazing Feedback.
Is your pickiness causing students to give up because it will never be good enough for you?
Some students don’t need every single little thing fixed. Choose your battles carefully. What will be the biggest skill that this student can use moving forward in life?
When you assign something, expect every student’s best work. For students that are having struggles in different areas, be specific and clear about your requirements. Praise the things they do well every time to build confidence.
Make sure you’re being clear when it’s an expectation or if it’s an extra that you don’t really need in order to assess a student. By this we mean with yourself (your students don’t always need to know this-in fact they should feel that everything you are teaching is super important). There is no point turning a student off an entire subject area over something that you pick at (but the average person wouldn’t bother to notice).
This is where understanding what you teach is so important-are these enduring outcomes that spiral every year and build until students graduate or are these minor little content things that can be found online if they forget. Focus on the big and important life-long skills.
Yup, we said it. Some students have mastered the art of being needy. They have learned they can get what they want from you by acting in a way that gets your undivided care and attention, but this usually means negative behaviour.
While we all want to be caring teachers, there is a line between caring and coddling. Caring lets a student know you are thinking of them and you know they can get themselves in order when it’s time to learn. You can let them know you will be there to listen when they are ready to talk in a reasonable voice (not whining, crying, yelling or swearing) when you are available to do so.
A side story
We once had a very caring Educational Assistant in the classroom as a general assistant (meaning she wasn’t attached to a specific student). We had a student (we’ll call her Little Janie) who would often have blow-ups over things like rain, no pencil, someone smelled like tuna or anything else.
When a blow-up would happen Little Janie would take off running down the hall and the Educational Assistant would go running off after her and would spend hours in the hall talking to her and trying to convince her to rejoin the class.
One afternoon the Educational Assistant was away taking training on something or other and we were without any extra adult help. Little Janie blew up right on schedule and because we had our arms elbow deep in a chemistry experiment, we sent one student to watch where she went and then report back.
She was sitting at the end of the hall. So, we knew she was safe and asked our student spy to let her know we would come talk when we had a chance.
It was almost fifteen minutes before one of us could check on her (aside from having our spy peek out to see if she was still there). By the time we were available to talk to her, she had already calmed herself down. She was ready to return to the classroom.
So, that day we made an arrangement that she could blow up if she needed. She couldn’t slam the door and she had to stay at the end of the hallway. It worked.
What Did We Learn?
When our Educational Assistant returned to school the next day we had another blow-up and another day where she was out in the hall sobbing for hours. Despite asking our EA to let her be so she could self-soothe, she wanted to “help her out.”
Yes, that would be nice, but it is completely unrealistic to spend that much time with one student in the hall and it doesn’t teach Little Janie to self-regulate. If you’re looking for more information about self-regulation, read our blog post: Why You Should Teach Students to Self-Regulate.
Now, we recognize this will not work for every student for every situation, but generally you should be interacting with students in age-appropriate ways.
Helping Too Much
Sometimes our wanting students to be successful causes us to help a little too much. It’s ok for students to work hard. They won’t learn to work through problems unless they are given the opportunity.
When you are working with a student during reading instruction are you quick to correct mistakes? Do you tell them they made a mistake, but let them figure it out? Or do you just keep going if they don’t fix it?
All of these are tried and true instructional practices. Depending on what you are teaching, you might want to let them find and fix their own mistakes so they can learn to self-monitor. We complain that students don’t know how to reflect and fix their own errors, but if we always jump in and tell them the exact mistake they’ve made and then tell them how to fix it, they’ll just sit and wait for you to do the work.
Sometimes we think we’re being helpful, but students who have to learn to help themselves become more resilient. They develop a growth mindset and deepen their learning, They are able to self-regulate and manage their time more effectively.
You might not be able to withdraw all your help at once. Scaffolding works well. Help a little less each day. You’ll be amazed at how much more they can do on their own.
A little side note: we had a student in grade five who still couldn’t tie his shoelaces. Instead of teaching him, we asked him to research methods online and then teach the class the one he felt was the most effective. Not only did he do a great presentation, we never had to touch those shoelaces again.
Are you afraid of math? Can’t draw? Well, those little self-deprecating comments you make might be undermining your authority on the subject.
We will never try to say we are the best at something, but we always try to show students that even when we aren’t the best, we try our best. And we use the word “yet” at the end of everything we try.
I haven’t gotten fast at division yet.
I haven’t figured out how to make this frog look like a frog yet.
Your students don’t need to see you as a superhero, but you do need to model that when something is challenging, you are trying as hard as you can. When you say you suck at math, you are giving your students permission to suck at math.
No one wants that.
Remember your enthusiasm for or against everything you teach rubs off on your students whether you mean it to or not. If you think your whole class could learn more about growth mindset, you should read our post: The Learning Pit or try this drama circle with your class.
Like we said at the beginning, no one thinks they are sabotaging student learning-especially on purpose. You just want the very best for your students. Part of that is reflecting on your practices and making adjustments as needed.
Have you been accidentally creating helplessness in your students? What are you going to try? Let us know in the comments below.