Brain-Based Learning

How Kids Can Overcome the Awkwardness of Asking for Help

There are many reasons students don’t ask for help. Research shows there are strategies to help them overcome their reluctance. 

November 19, 2021
Daniel Garcia / The iSpot

Office hours, as many middle and high school teachers can attest, are often a frustratingly underutilized block of time during the school day—an unstructured period earmarked for student check-ins and lesson support that very few kids take advantage of, even when they understand the benefits.

Students’ tendency to avoid seeking help is an area Vanessa Bohns, a professor of psychology and organizational behavior at Cornell University, focuses her research on, perhaps partly inspired by her own experience with students at the college level.

“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,” writes Bohns for Character Lab. “I clearly advertised the time I would be available, door open, ready to answer any questions. I extolled the benefits of asking for help. But I still sat there alone.”

Bohn’s office hours experience largely mirrors what happens in middle and high school, compounded for teenagers by a potent mix of peer pressure—the urgent need to appear competent in front of friends and classmates is a driving force at this age—and a lack of metacognitive skills when it comes to assessing their own learning and knowledge gaps. “Middle schoolers have a harder time asking for help because they’re transitioning from the cut-and-dry thinking of elementary school,” writes educator and academic coach Penny Kostaras for TeachThought. “Add to that the self-consciousness and insecurity that puberty brings, and no one dares to ask for help for fear of being ‘found out’ or ‘exposed’.”

We also tend to underestimate just how much discomfort kids feel about asking for help. That can cause parents or educators to “sit back waiting for those in need to ask for help, engage in misguided attempts to encourage help-seeking without directly addressing help-seekers’ discomfort, or mistakenly attribute underutilization of available help to a lack of need rather than a lack of confidence,” write Bohns and Francis J. Flynn in a 2009 research article. “In each case, a likely outcome is that critical support is never provided.”

Yet the answer, Bohns notes, isn’t about getting students to grasp the benefits of asking for help, convincing them, for example, of the upside of office hours. Instead, it’s much more productive, she says, to lower the temperature on the process generally so that identifying where they need help, and then asking for it, becomes a low-stakes, normal part of being a good learner, something students feel comfortable and empowered to do regularly. “Students need to feel like they aren’t the only ones struggling,” Bohns writes. “They need to believe they won’t be judged negatively for getting extra support.”

Here are seven educator-sourced strategies designed to normalize seeking help in middle and high school, making it a natural, easy choice for students.

Consider Eliminating Office Hours: On top of all the aforementioned reasons students may avoid traditional office hours, the period immediately after the school day ends is also when kids head to commitments like clubs or jobs. It’s also when many kids simply need to relax and socialize after a day of focused learning. Even if they need a quick teacher check-in, an opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification, perhaps briefly review a test or paper to ensure they grasp the material, there’s a scheduling conflict for many kids.

Consider intentionally scheduling weekly in-class time for this purpose—and keep track so it’s not just the kids most at ease with seeking help who benefit. This might feel overwhelming when your class size is large, but these check-ins can be brief and scheduled over a period of weeks, ensuring that each student gets a time slot and you don’t feel overwhelmed by the task. For a less scheduled approach, plan for a weekly open ten to 15 minutes during class where you walk around and casually check in with students.

Theresa Williams, a middle school math and science teacher, likes to conduct brief in-class interview assessments, scheduled over a long period of time. It can be a better way to get a feel for how well her students know the material, compared to traditional assessments, she says, and gives kids “more opportunities to recall information, share it in a kind of relaxed way.” 

Teach Metacognitive Skills: It’s not uncommon for students to “sit in silence or confusion,” instead of raising their hand to ask for help, writes educator Jennifer Sullivan. “Students must first recognize that they’re struggling. This requires honesty and self-awareness—some students don’t think they need help even when formal or informal assessments indicate otherwise.”

So encourage self-reflection in students, help them develop the metacognitive skills to take on at least some of the responsibility for monitoring their learning, rather than keeping that task the sole purview of teachers, or parents. As they learn, students should regularly check in with themselves, asking themselves basic questions like: “Do I need to ask for help?” and “Are there areas that are unclear to me?” As they prepare for a test, they can ask themselves open-ended questions like:

•  Can I teach this concept to a friend or family member?

•  Can I identify one strategy I’ve been using during this lesson that’s helped me be successful?

•  Can I identify one strategy I want to try using more often?

•  How do I think I’m doing in this class, in this unit, on this project? How do I know?

Normalize It: Part of lowering the stakes for students involves demonstrating how commonplace needing and asking for help can be. So talk about it in class and provide examples, read aloud about it, and share your own stories about seeking support or assistance from others.

“Share with your students what you were good at and what you struggled with when you were their age,” Kostaras writes. “It’s important to remember what it was like to be the age of your students. What were your strengths and weaknesses in the subject matter that you teach, or in other subjects? How did you overcome those obstacles? What embarrassed you?” Sharing your own very human learning experiences with students serves not just to illustrate how you sought help, it can also provide a valuable glimpse of the teacher “not as an untouchable authority, but as a relatable human who has grown and changed throughout the years,” says Kostaras.

Model Assertiveness: Assertive communication is a hard but valuable skill for students to learn. “In the classroom, students who lack assertiveness skills may hesitate to share their thinking openly or ask clarifying questions when they’re confused,” writes educator Kristin Stuart Valdes. “But when people behave assertively, they stand up for themselves without diminishing or hurting others. In other words, they’re strong, not mean.”

After clarifying the definition of assertive communication—you might explain that it “represents the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity,” Valdes suggests—students can role-play solving various conflicts or problems. Try a “Stating Your Needs” exercise where students practice responding assertively to a misunderstanding—a student can’t keep up with her notes, asks the teacher to slow down, but the teacher doesn’t see her quietly raising her hand and keeps going. “We sometimes run into misunderstandings because we haven’t communicated our own needs clearly,” Valdes says. “It may seem that other people are ignoring or disrespecting our needs when in fact they’re simply not aware of them. If we recognize this, we can address the problem by stating our needs calmly.” 

Prove It Exists in the Wild: Consider inviting adults who work in the school building, or in your local community, into the classroom to discuss ways that asking for help benefits them in their jobs and lives, Kostara suggests. “Revealing to younger students that getting help is the norm in the creative, scientific, and professional world makes them aware that receiving help is universal and OK,” she writes. “Once in the know, students can let down their guard and be open to receiving help earlier so that they can thrive.”

Offer Conversation Starters and Role-Play: For students who are introverted or shy, who are English learners, or who—for any number of reasons—struggle to speak up in class or initiate a conversation with a teacher, practice and role-play can help build confidence and skills, says Sullivan.

Ask students to brainstorm ways to initiate a conversation asking a teacher, or peer, for help, and then have them role-play in small groups or one-on-one with an adult how the conversation might unfold. To help get things moving, provide a few sentence starters such as:

•  I’m struggling with... . Can we talk about it later?

•  I’m working hard, but I’m still not understanding… . Can you help me?

•  I’m not sure what I need. Can you please talk to me?

•  Can you give me advice about … ?

Provide Non-Public Options: When sign-ups for an SAT prep class at three high schools were public—allowing students to see who would be taking the class—53 percent of students expressed interest in the class. But when sign-ups were offered in private settings, participation in the prep class rose to 80 percent, according to a 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, underscoring the powerful pressure kids feel about how they’re perceived by peers.

It’s important that students know they can also reach out privately to seek help and support—by email, for example. While most teachers share their email address with students, go one step further and make a point of clarifying with students that it’s another way for them to reach out to you for help or support. Consider establishing ground rules around your response time and other details that protect your non-school hours—and then be sure to check your inbox daily.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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