Productive Struggle: When is the Right Time to Help?

If you are the parent of a young child that is learning to read it can be a time of endless helplessness and frustration. As a parent, we do not like to watch our child struggle and get frustrated. We want to jump in and the solve the problem right away. The problem with this, is that it is only a temporary fix. It does not in the long run give children the tools to be successful in the future. As educators, we are often asked what is the right way to respond?

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The “Helping” Problem

In the interest of helping children, parents and teachers often want to eliminate the frustration or problem and rescue them from the uncomfortableness they are feeling in the moment. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the problem and actually is interfering in the learning process.

Productive struggle as I like to call it is actually an important part of the learning process. It builds perseverance and the ability for children to grapple with a problem and try and resolve it and in the process develops independent problem solving and thinking skills.

What To Do Instead

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Think about learning to do something new. That can be a scary and unsettling time. When was the last time you learned to do something new? Children are often involved in sports activities or taking music lessons. At first when they are learning to shoot free throws, ride a bike, or play the piano, it is difficult to watch as they try and try and keep missing the basket, fall over on their bike, or hit a bunch of wrong notes as they learn to play a new song. The interesting thing about learning a sport or a musical instrument, we as the parent or teacher can not do it for them. We can show them, but then they have to practice and practice and practice until the skilled is mastered. So why is learning to read handled differently? Why are we as adults so quick to provide the answer rather than the needed support so they can learn to do it independently?

Remember, it is natural, and in their best interest for students to struggle a bit and take time to figure out the problem and try to find a solution. That’s part of the learning process. We are afraid to let them struggle a bit to build their resilience. This is where the real learning happens when children are forced to think deeply, make connections to prior learning and use tools they have developed to strategically problem solve. In the case of learning to read, solving an unknown word.

Tips to Promote Independence

When your child encounters a problem, such as a word they don’t know. Here are some suggestions to try:

  • First, do not be readily available for them to rely on you and do not make eye contact as they are struggling.
  • Sit back and observe what they do to try and fix the problem: 1. If they automatically look up for help, that is an indicator that they do not have the necessary coping or problem solving skills to support themselves. 2. If instead they try to reread the tricky part or attempt to “say the word slowly” (I prefer this much better over “sound it out”) or think of a word that would make sense, they are showing signs of having some word solving skills in their repertoire.
  • If they truly are stuck and are not able to try anything, wait three seconds and then prompt or ask a question such as: do you know a way to help yourself? You do not want their frustration level to rise to the point that they start to cry. That is going to make everything worse. Beginning readers and children in general need to feel secure that someone is there to help if they truly need it. This is what builds their confidence and ability to take risks.

As parents and teachers we have the best of intentions. I encourage you to monitor what you are doing at home. Is what you are doing helping your child develop independent problem solving skills or is it potentially training them to be dependent on you or others when they encounter a problem? Remember a little productive struggle is where transformation, learning and growth occur. Don’t be afraid to let your child wrestle a bit with learning something new. Remember success breeds success. If they are successful in this moment of struggle, they will be much more likely to take a risk next time they encounter a problem.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

The joy is in the journey!

Peace,

Mary

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