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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

The Real Reason Why Students Don’t Ask Teachers for Help

By Vanessa Bohns — October 06, 2021 1 min read
Why don't students ask for help when they need it?
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How do I get students to ask for help when they need it?

It helps to understand the real reason why students don’t go see their teachers, even when they know they should. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

The quietest part of my day used to be my office hours, when students could meet with me without an appointment. Why? Because no one would show up for them.

I clearly advertised the time I would be available, door open, ready to answer any questions. I extolled the benefits of asking for help. And I told my students what a valuable resource their professors were, that we wanted to help them be successful in their classes.

But I still sat there alone. None of it worked. Students already know it would benefit them to get help. But asking for help feels awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing.

When we aren’t in their shoes—faced with the immediate prospect of asking someone—we tend to forget just how powerful those anxieties can be. Telling someone what they have to gain from seeking help doesn’t work when they are more focused on what they have to lose.

That’s why research shows it’s more effective to address the underlying anxiety of asking for help than to focus on the practical benefits of doing so. Students need to feel like they aren’t the only ones struggling. They need to believe they won’t be judged negatively for getting extra support.

That’s also why, in my own teaching, I both formalize and normalize help-seeking by requiring all students to come in for office hours at least once. No one feels singled out, and students get practice taking advantage of available resources—and seeing their peers do the same.

Don’t think that knowing help is available is the same as knowing it’s OK to use it.

Do remember how hard it can be to admit you need help. Share a story about a time when you overcame the hesitation to say you needed support. And ask your child how they feel when a friend asks them for a favor—are they happy to lend a hand? Tell them that’s how their teachers feel when students ask for time outside of class: grateful that they can make a difference.

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.

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