George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An adult woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail is wearing a cowl neck maroon and beige checkered hoodie, standing with her elbows at her sides and her hands raised, as if she's addressing an audience.

It's never easy seeing a student experience distress, but well-meaning adults (myself included) too quickly and too often rush to the rescue. There are times to intervene, but we must be more judicious in knowing when to let students cope with failure on their own. Otherwise, we will raise a risk-averse generation whose members lack resilience and the crucial ability to rebound from failure. To prevent that outcome, teachers and educational leaders alike must be mindful of several situations where helping hurts.

Extrinsic Motivators

As a teacher, few things pain me more than when adults offer students rewards for performing well in school. I want students to learn merely for the sake of learning, which includes the healthy sense of fulfillment that comes with acquiring skills and knowledge. When adults incentivize learning and performance with promises of new video games, clothes, and cars, they condition students to expect something extra in return for every achievement. Going to school eventually morphs into an undesirable chore -- rather than a gift -- for which students demand a form of payment.

My sentiments are reinforced by Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She recently addressed parents at my school:

Jessica Lahey from David Cutler on Vimeo.

Much of this goes hand in hand with parents' caring more about the grade than what the student actually learned. With college becoming increasingly expensive and competitive, I understand this skewed priority, as much as it frustrates me. To get to that next level, a growing number of students are focusing on the grade first, rather than growth and maturity, which should be paramount.

Too Much Tutoring

Some students clearly do need tutors to help reinforce their learning. Throughout middle school, I went to a math tutor who, in addition to making the material more comprehensible, also made it more enjoyable. Still, I fear that some students receive too much assistance from tutors and meet with them too often. For those reasons, I know of several teachers who don't assign large take-home writing and research assignments -- it's too difficult to ascertain how much of the work is the students' and how much belongs to a tutor. Instead, those teachers assign more in-class essays to assess mastery. While I understand their motivation for doing so, I can't help but feel that the tactic leaves students worse off. I favor a balance of the two, with the in-class work providing a baseline for how a student is likely to write at home, without assistance.

As much as it pains adults to see some students struggle, often the best thing we can do for them is nothing at all. Otherwise, they will constantly rely on support in college and in the workplace, where a lack of confidence and self-reliance might hinder success.

Deadline Extensions

Certainly circumstances do exist that make granting extensions wholly valid, like when students must cope with the death of a loved one or confront a serious medical issue. I’m also likely to grant an extension request, for most reasons, that is made in advance of the due date -- three days at minimum. All the while, I struggle with knowing that by making such decisions, I am often creating even more pressure. The student must not only meet her new deadline, but also complete new work that I and other teachers continue to assign. If the same person also receives an extension in other classes, the workload will quickly pile up, making recovery and success an unlikely scenario.

Eliminating Stress and Anxiety

No adult wants to see any young person paralyzed by stress and anxiety. Those are powerful emotions, which if unchecked can sometimes lead to an array of larger health issues. However, at times I fear that adults (again, myself included) are overly eager to mitigate unease rather than let students rise above their own self-doubt. Those mitigations could include mandating academic support, or granting exceptions and extensions of any kind. The young person is then reinforced with the unhealthy notion that he can't resolve any of his own challenges, and that he must always seek support to make life less stressful and more enjoyable. Unfortunately, the world at large is neither as compassionate nor understanding, and we must be cautious about demonizing stress and anxiety -- which, in healthy amounts, assist not only with productivity, but also with the larger learning process.

Over Scheduling

In our era of renewed emphasis on AP classes, extracurricular activities, after-school sports, and community service, it's no wonder that many students feel stressed and anxious. I'm amazed at how much adults ask young people to balance, while still expecting them to maintain something of a social life. With so much being forced onto their plates, students still see not being able to do everything equally well as a sign of weakness rather than the reality of being human. A crammed student schedule may appear attractive to college admissions officers (if the candidate can avoid burnout), but it doesn't help with learning about sacrificing to pursue one interest or prioritize it over another. We can't do everything, and life is all about making choices. Unfortunately, too many students are deprived of the opportunity to learn that lesson.

In your experience, how else does trying to help students sometimes hurt them in the long run? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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momstoryteller's picture
mom and author of children's books that help build character

"If you're not bleeding or throwing up, I don't want to hear about it." Looking back at this phrase I used regularly when our four kids were bickering, I thought it sounded rather unfeeling... until my now 17 year old daughter recently told me it was one of the most important lessons I taught her. Huh? She says looking back, she realizes it forced her to solve her own problems and gave her self confidence because she knew I believed she was able to take care of herself. Now I absolutely agree with the post above that swooping in to solve our kids problems robs them of the opportunity to be creative, confident, and to learn perseverance. Read more about it at

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

This is really interesting. My daughters are 2 and 4 and so the bickering and fighting happens very often, I realize the age difference draws on a line of safety, if they're screaming and crying yes, I need to check on them, but as months are going by, when I hear them arguing or fighting, I pass by to see if all is okay, and try not to intervene. They're starting to solve their own problems as their communication skills are getting stronger. So I can totally see that down the line, I would be using that saying with them when they're older. I hope it does instil self-confidence in them to solve their own problems.

Pamela Rowe's picture

What I see happening with secondary age students is that many of them have developed an attitude of entitlement. It is apparent that they have been given whatever they wanted or needed without making an effort and now in high school they expect the same. Students who want to take days off still expect to be accommodated with make up work and extra time and expect me as a teacher to prepare what they've missed. I have a class participation point system so students must demonstrate participation to earn their grade. Our society in general has fostered this enabling of our children and we end up with twenty year olds who have no clue how to be independent. I like this article in that she clearly points out that we are setting our children and students up to fail when we rescue them from every trial.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

That's interesting, Pamela. As an introvert, I find "participation" systems to be really hard. As a student I could be fully engaged and processing but actually speaking up in class was brutal. I did it because it was required, but it actually got in the way of my engagement because I was more focused on my fear of speaking up- what would I say? Would others laugh at me? What if I was wrong? When was the right time to say it?- than on the content being discussed. How do you support kids like me? (I think I'd push back a bit on the word "entitled" as well. I find that many adolescents have been taught that the game of school is played by waiting to be told exactly what to say, do, or think and then by reproducing that content on demand. The Test is Best culture has taught them that that's what we expect and then, when we change the rules on them and ask for creative thought and participation, well, they have no idea what to do so they freeze, push back, or simply refuse.)

Thanks for a great post!

Choppe's picture

Excellent advice from Mr. Sztabnik and Ms. Thomas. Personalisation always helps and, particularly with secondary students, the answers to "Why do we have to do this?" are often enough to overcome resistance or hesitation in becoming fully engaged in learning new tasks or skills.
I am guilty of using a (small) reward system on learning games and I count on the natural competitiveness of students in groups and class activities, as it works. One has to ensure inclusion, though, for reticent students.
A comfortable classroom environment permits students to not only feel comfortable questioning their teacher, but also to short and encourage their classmates.

HeyTeach!'s picture

One of the buzz words that our principal insists on is "responsible," but responsibility is the last thing that we actually require of our students. Didn't finish your homework? No problem, we'll accept it late. Didn't pass your test? No problem, you can do test corrections (for credit). Ditched school for a week? No problem, we'll give you all the work you missed, allow you extra time to complete it and even require the teachers to give up their "free time" to make sure you get it all done.

It's all very discouraging.

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

Great comment, Choppe! I couldn't agree more that a comfortable classroom environment often translates to students challenging not just their peers, but also teacher. I see no issue with small reward systems, so long as they hold no real weight. For example, in preparing for assessments I sometimes divide my class into teams for a Jeapordy-like game. The winners receive a few pieces of candy, or some other small treat. Of course, I almost always end up giving all of the students at least something to encourage them to study and to wish them good luck.

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

HeyTeach!, I hear your frustration. I think it's something that many teachers and schools struggle with. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on productive ways to change the wider school culture. How can we as educators help to really balance expectations and responsibility with understanding and empathy? This is something I often contemplate. I wish I had a one-size-fits-all answer.

Guest's picture

Great logic. I too think we make things too easy for the kids. I think the community as a whole needs to be reassessed. It is not one person who makes it bad for everyone.

JohnW's picture

Excellent points on the two posts above. I've often had discussions about "Participation Grades" and while open and understanding to some ideas I am opposed to the idea overall. I, like Laura, was a very engaged and hard-working student. However, when I knew I had to speak, I became very anxious and my thoughts became more about how others would perceive what I said rather than conveying my thoughts about the problem/story/etc.

As with most things, it is much easier to say than actually do, but in order to know if our students are engaged we have to know our students. Some students might strive in a larger setting and are more than willing to share their answers in front of a whole class. Others might feel more comfortable talking to just one person and then sharing out. Others still might feel more comfortable writing down their thoughts/ideas and then sharing them off of their paper because their anxiety about talking with any written points might be too much.

I saw this in a classroom I observed several times last year. The class was doing a Math talk at the beginning of a lesson. The teacher would start the Math talk and it was dominated by several students the first few times. However, what we tried was instead the teacher posed a problem and the students had about 2 minutes (give or take) of their own "Think Time". They could write down thoughts, pictures, ideas, etc. They then had 2 minutes of "Turn and Talk Time" where they shared ideas and thoughts with a partner and refined or added to their own ideas. Students then shared out as a whole class. What we saw were so many more students willing to share ideas because they had time to think about them, discuss and had that confidence in sharing their ideas. At the beginning of the year, they weren't necessarily no engaged but either lacked the confidence in themselves academically, or with their public speaking, or a variety of issues.

Again, great topic and great thoughts.

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