Critical Thinking

Helping Young Kids Manage Productive Struggle

Elementary school teachers can cultivate resilience—and academic growth—in young students through a carefully scaffolded approach to productive struggle.

February 1, 2024
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By the time kids reach high school, they’re developmentally ready to tackle challenging material in physics or history, for example, and educators are more apt to see the value of productive struggle in classrooms. But how should we think of productive struggle in the earlier grades?

After all, elementary students have shorter attention spans compared to older peers, and may lack the emotional tools needed to persist through frustration and confusion. Teachers of these young students, understandably, often feel a strong urge to jump in and help students when they experience roadblocks or struggle, writes Katie Perez, an elementary school educator in San Marcos, Texas. 

Frequently, Perez says in a recent article for Teacher 2 Teacher, these educators believe the longer their students experience the feeling of being “stuck” on a problem, “the more likely they are to feel like they’re always going to be stuck.” Some may even fear that creating opportunities for students to encounter work outside of their reach may diminish their “sense of motivation, curiosity and willingness to try future tasks.” 

But deep thinking and focus are dispositions that need to be cultivated and then sustained over the course of academic careers. And while students should also experience plenty of confidence-building activities in class, there’s a growing body of research that suggests that when kids are given the latitude and the time to grapple with challenging tasks, they encode conceptual understanding more deeply and tend to perform better when asked to transfer knowledge. 

Reaping these benefits in an elementary school classroom is not impossible, Perez writes. Rather, it requires teachers to scaffold productive struggle, ask the right sorts of questions, and ensure students understand the benefits of pushing through the difficult work of answering them. 

Getting Metacognitive

The first step, Perez writes, is to teach young students the important difference between regular-old struggle and productive struggle. Perez begins by defining with her students what the words “productive” and “struggle” mean independently, and then puts their responses together to create a new definition. 

Usually, Perez writes, her students arrive at a definition that aligns with the core principles of productive struggle: “working hard toward a goal, and—when we hit a challenge—using all our resources we have available to keep going and not give up.” 

To further tease out the nuances between struggle and productive struggle—and provide students with an easily accessible way to see those differences—Perez and her students design an anchor chart exploring what regular struggle looks and feels like and what productive struggle should look and feel like. 

When a child is “stuck” on a difficult problem for example, the chart helps them understand what this should not look like: giving up, frustration, “working hard but getting nowhere,” or throwing a fit. When students embrace a more productive approach, meanwhile, they are reminded to “use [their] tools/resources,” “try another way (a new strategy),” think about “what worked last time,” or take a breath. Group work, meanwhile, should not include “arguing over the jobs,” or “distracting others,” but rather sharing ideas, “listening to others,” and taking turns. 

Resetting the Stakes 

Understanding what productive struggle should look like is one thing, but to get students to actually buy-in entails creating the right classroom conditions that give kids the permission (and the self-confidence) to fail. 

To help facilitate this, Perez writes that before giving students work she knows they’ll struggle with, she provides them with easier “mastery experiences,” or questions they can confidently answer given their previous learning. These questions can increase their motivation and provide them with problem-solving strategies to build off of when encountering more complex tasks. When teaching fractions, for example, Perez starts with easy problems and uses students’ momentum to tackle harder problems and lean on what they already know to figure out what they don’t know. “The most important thing is that they continue to see success and build a sense of self-trust and trust in their strategies,” Perez said.  

Teachers can also try to change the temperature around assessment and grading, and help them see that “the whole learning journey is important, not just the answer to the problem right in front of them,” according to Perez. For middle school math teacher Crystal Frommert, that might involve changing the conversation around work products from grades to growth: “You did really well with simplifying radicals. I’m looking forward to seeing how you apply that skill to the Pythagorean theorem.” 

To encourage similar outside-the-box thinking and intellectual risk-taking, teachers at King Middle School in Portland, Maine delay grades altogether until the end of a unit. Dr. Pamela Cantor, an author, educator, and founder of Turnaround for Children, told Edutopia that grading practices like the one King Middle School employs can motivate students to “embrace the process of figuring something out,” whereas grading them too early in the process may “shut down that effort instead of opening it up.” 

Designing for Productive Struggle

A productive struggle lesson shouldn’t be employed every day, or even every week, Manu Kapur, the father of approach, told Edutopia in 2022. According to Kapur, it’s most useful when trying to get students to deepen the conceptual understanding of “three to five big ideas” over the course of a term. For those concepts, it’s helpful to design productive failure activities. 

Josh Deis, a former teacher and current district math coordinator in California, said a good activity should be a low floor/high ceiling task that is “readily accessible to students with varying degrees of prior knowledge,” but also connects to the new learning they’ll soon embark on. 

In a third-grade math classroom, for example, Deis asked students the following question: “There are five teams in the volleyball league. Every team has six players. How many players are in the volleyball league?” The question, Deis said, is “accessible” and solvable for students who haven’t learned multiplication yet but can rely on their existing addition skills. But it’s also the sort of problem that can allow students who already understand some of the basics of multiplication to flex their knowledge and demonstrate—to both themselves and their teacher—that they’re already capable of some heavy-lifting at the outset of a new unit. 

The Snowmen Buttons problem is another open-ended problem that high school math teacher Solenne Abaziou says is also a good fit for elementary school students. Ask students how many snowmen with two or three buttons each can be built if students are given 21 buttons—but don’t specify whether all the buttons must be used or if the number of snowmen must be maximized. Leaving the method open-ended, Abaziou writes, might cause some frustration but can stimulate students’ creativity by leaving room for different interpretations at different levels of learning. 

In an ELA classroom, Paul Sylvester, an assistant professor at West Chester University, recommends playing “finding the rule.” Instead of teaching kids what a proper noun is, for example, go through a text they are about to read and circle all the proper nouns in the first paragraph, then ask them to find them in the second paragraph, and explain their reasoning. Doing this, Sylvester writes, allows kids to “discover” and further encode some of the rules of language they’re about to learn, rather than simply hear a definition of it and memorize it. 

Resisting Impulses

While students are engaged in a productive struggle lesson, it’s imperative that teachers resist the urge to correct misconceptions—that comes later—and rob them of opportunities to push through to deeper learning. When students do have questions, Tori Filler, an elementary school literacy teacher in Brooklyn, recommends promoting peer collaboration first. 

A quick Think-Pair-Share session for an issue many students in the class are tripping over might be in order, or a Turn and Talk for something that only a few students are struggling with. Establishing a classroom rule, like Ask 3 Before Me, also comes in handy, and, according to elementary school teacher Angela Coleman, encourages collaboration and autonomy. 

At some point, of course, the teacher has to step in and teach the underlying skills. Once the lesson is over, Perez suggests initiating a class discussion to flesh out the various solutions students arrived at. Common mistakes should be surfaced during this discussion and celebrated by thanking students for showing their work to the class, and asking other students to share if they made the same mistake. This, Perez said, helps “normalize” the process of failure and teaches students to “meet mistakes with gratitude.” 

Kapur says teachers can build off of students’ rough ideas and solutions, and use follow-on approaches like direct instruction and review to help them make sense of the material they just struggled with. “The goal is to design experiences that incorporate failure in a safe, curated way,” Kapur said. “Then, we turn that initial failure into something that is productive by stepping in, giving students feedback and guidance.”

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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