Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

The One Thing Teachers Do That Hurts Student Motivation

By Julia Leonard — May 05, 2021 1 min read
How do I help kids without hurting their confidence?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How can I help kids who are struggling without hurting their confidence?
When students get stuck on a problem, they get frustrated—and teachers want to help them so they don’t give up. But some ways that help in the short term can have unintended consequences. Here’s something I wrote about the topic recently for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:
“It’s not working! I’m just no good at science.”
“Oh no!” I thought. This reaction was exactly what I was trying to prevent. I was teaching 3rd through 5th graders about potential and kinetic energy, and they were using pipe insulation and other recyclables to build roller coasters for marbles.
I hurried over to the student’s table and lifted up the beginning of her roller coaster to give the marble more potential energy—enough to get it through the first and second loop. It worked! She was gleeful at the success, and I had time to move on and help the next student.
Ten years later, I now realize I had done the wrong thing.
Taking over for a struggling student alleviates frustration in the moment, but in the long run, it can be demotivating. In recent experimental research, my colleagues and I found that when adults take over on a challenging task, children are more likely to quit sooner on the next one. Kids may interpret the help as proof that they aren’t capable or that an adult will always complete hard tasks for them, so putting in more effort isn’t worthwhile.
It’s natural to want to intervene when you see a child struggle. But taking over isn’t usually a good idea. Instead of overcoming challenges for the student, help them recognize the next possible steps that they can tackle on their own. There’s a world of difference between offering suggestions and doing it yourself.
Don’t jump in and fix kids’ problems before they’ve put in a good effort first. And don’t intervene when they haven’t even asked for help.
Do give kids hints and more time to work through a problem. Ask, “What do you think would happen if you tried …" Have confidence in your students’ ability to learn, and they will become more confident themselves.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being What the Research Says Teen Brains Aged Prematurely During the Pandemic. Schools Should Take Note
Researchers cite chronic stress during the pandemic for the phenomenon, which can affect mental health among youth.
3 min read
Cracked silhouette of a person holding their head with illuminated gears in place of the brain.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Sports Coaches Want More Training on How to Address Young Athletes' Mental Health
A survey found that only 18 percent of coaches feel confident that they know how to connect their athletes to mental health supports.
4 min read
Physical Education teacher Amanda DeLaGarza instructs students how to stretch during 7th grade P.E. class at Cockrill Middle School on Nov. 9, 2016 in McKinney, Texas.
Schools in the United States earned a D-minus grade in 2022 in an international ranking from the Physical Activity Alliance for how well they facilitate access to physical activity for students. Research shows that physical activity, such as participation in sports, improves mental health.
Ting Shen/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Student Well-Being Schools Are Not Identifying All Their Homeless Students. Why That Is Hurting the Kids
Hundreds of thousands of homeless students are not receiving the services they need, new report says.
3 min read
A young Black girl with her head down on a stack of books at her desk in a classroom
E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Students Have Ideas to Address Mental Health Challenges. They Want to Be Heard
Students have solutions that can help teachers and school leaders support youth dealing with stress, anxiety, and other issues.
8 min read
Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
iStock/Getty Images Plus