We Have to Teach Our Kids How to Struggle | exSTEMsions

We Have to Teach Our Kids How to Struggle

Struggle is a good thing, right?

As a teacher, I think a lot about the idea of “productive struggle”, how it’s actually really useful for kids to experience the joy (and pain!) of solving a difficult problem, but only after banging their heads against it for a while.

But that’s my teacher hat. I am also a parent. And that’s a whole different story.

Every child is unique; they each have their own different ways of thinking, of working, of doing chores (in the messiest possible way) - and that’s great. As a mom, I know that unique kids grow into unique adults, who have unique ideas, and apply their ideas to solve problems and build the world anew. At the same time, every child has their unique struggles too. And we just ran into one of those struggles, here, in my house, around the idea of struggle itself.

My oldest child, my daughter, is doing great in school - so great, in fact, that she’s bored. She recently asked me when they would start doing “real math”.  “Great,” I thought, “she needs some challenges!” And so I put my teacher hat on, and off we went. And then we ran smack into the wall! So what happened? My daughter is doing great in school, so great in fact, that she hasn’t had to struggle, at all. Which seems like a really good thing, until she ran into something that wasn’t so easy… and just didn’t know how to move forward from the point of being stuck.

When your child struggles...

If you have kids, maybe you have seen this happen in your own home. Your child is great at something - maybe schoolwork, maybe something else entirely - and then suddenly they run into a challenge that just stops them cold. Because it’s always been so easy! You know what I’m talking about here. And while you know, in the back of your mind, that struggling through that difficult problem is good, there’s still the front of your mind, the caring parent part, that’s not having it, for example, when your child looks at you and says “Well, this just isn’t possible, because I didn’t get it on the first try!” and then cries.

When my daughter really starts to struggle, my teacher hat and my parent hat become involved in their own struggle. I don't love to see my daughter frustrated, but I really truly believe in the power of learning that comes from having to struggle (so much so that this is not even the first blog post about it; see this post on persistence).  At this point I am absolutely confident that she knows the content of what she needed to learn - she’s met the standards, she knows the main ideas, she has the math, the history, and the science down. But now, it’s about applying that content in a new way; it’s about something she knows but it doesn’t look familiar, and then she doesn’t know what to do immediately.  So the question is, how do I teach my child to struggle? Because what she needs is to learn how be a great learner. And that is vastly harder, at least in my experience, than just learning math, science or history.

How to support a child who is struggling

So what are we going to do? Well, here’s what I’m going to focus on with my daughter. And maybe, if what we’re talking about here is at all familiar, some of these ideas will work for you and your kids too.

  1. Provide support, but not answers. When my daughter is fighting through a challenging assignment, her first instinct right now is to come and ask me for the answer. Rather than give her that answer, my reply must be something like, “I know you can figure this out, keep at it!”
  2. When more is needed, ask questions, like “What are you really trying to figure out?  What do you know already? What have you already tried? What have you done before that’s similar and could help you?”
  3. Celebrate the struggle. Sometimes she won’t get the answer on the first try, or the tenth try. That’s fine, because the point of all this isn’t just the answer, it’s also the process. So we’re going to high-five and have mini-celebrations when she sticks with things, and really, really works. And when she eventually gets the answer, we’ll celebrate by starting a new challenge.
  4. Show your children your own struggles. My daughter will say “Well, it’s easy for YOU.”  Which is true, since I’m the teacher, not the student. But not everything in life is easy for me, or for any of us. And she needs to see more of that. She needs to see me, and other adults around her, struggle too, and watch what happens when we’re stuck, and how we get unstuck.
  5. Your child has to keep at it, but you have to keep at it with your child!  This all sounds like a ton of work doesn’t it? For sure, I hear you, and it is. But this work is one of the most worthwhile things I can do with her. If she can go out in the world thinking, “I may not know how to do that right this second, but I know for sure I can figure it out,” then I will be more than glad to have spent the time now (and pretty much every day from here on out) to get there.

I am proud that my daughter is doing great in school. But I know she can do more. It’s my job as her parent to see that in her, and to help her plan for the challenges hasn't yet faced. She’s going to face challenges at some point - we all do. I want to prepare her, by putting challenges in her path, teaching her to productively struggle, and helping see that the process of doing so is worthwhile. That way, she’s going to continue to do great in school, and at anything else she may want to put her mind to.

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Math in Daily Life
Learning with Children