How to Help When Your Teen Gets Frustrated with School Work
“If a subject is hard for me, then I must not be good at it.” This is what one of my high school students said to me just a few weeks ago while we were discussing his performance in Anatomy, one of his most difficult classes. Working on a challenging assignment, his confidence quickly began to falter, and his doubts grew. “If I’m struggling with this problem, am I really good at science?”
Does this sound familiar? I’ve worked with students for over twenty years and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen a teenager fall into this mental trap – a misconception of what struggle means when it comes to learning. Too many students think struggle means that they’re in the wrong place academically. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for advanced math,” for example.
But what if we could help our students start to think about it differently? What if we could help them think that struggle is a sign they’re in exactly the right place for optimal learning?
While struggle can be a sign that it’s time to seek more support, it shouldn’t be a source of shame or self-doubt. Why? Because struggle is a natural, even necessary, part of the learning process. In educational psychology, struggle is considered the foundation for learning. Without challenge, without room for mistakes or errors or failure, there is generally very little learning taking place.
If we can help students understand this, we can help them sidestep the mental trap that my Anatomy student fell into recently.
A Little Brain Science Goes a Long Way
There’s a lot of power in understanding how our brains are designed to work, and you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to grasp the basics. By educating ourselves and our students on some of the fundamentals of how memories are created and stored, we can empower them to be better, more resilient learners, especially when it comes to tackling a new or complicated topic.
The struggle, the making of new connections with effort, is where the learning lives. Students who are working through problems, struggling and trying different approaches, are rewiring and strengthening their neural connections, leading to deeper encoding of these concepts, enhancing long-term retention. Additionally, we have evidence that the emotions we feel from successfully overcoming a challenge also enhance memory formation, leading to the content being remembered “vividly and accurately, with greater resilience over time.” The repetition, the active engagement, the emotional charge, all enhance the durability of the memories made through struggle.
When students are facing failure, when they grapple with imperfect conditions that challenge them, we conceive of these as “desirable difficulties.” Any learning event that is primarily passive, just sitting and listening or watching, will generally lead to minimal durable knowledge creation or transfer into long-term memory.
Struggle is the primary indicator that a student is in the realm of learning, growing, and developing.
Learning is Learning: Using Examples from Outside of School
Another way to empower students to learn more courageously is to help them realize that they already do so in other areas of life. I asked my student, “Are there other areas where you face a challenge and feel energized or motivated by the challenge?” He mentioned that he faces challenges playing Fortnight or Super Mario Brothers. “When you are facing a hard level on Super Mario, does it mean that you’re innately not good at the game, or that you don’t belong playing it?” He said no. In the video games context, he had framed challenges and struggles as an essential part of the experience. Without challenges, the game would be boring. The struggle is the point!
Within this mental frame, challenge is the catalyst for greater engagement, rather than a signal to retreat. When it came to Anatomy, my student wasn’t having fun or playing with the challenge, as he did with Super Mario Bros. He was attaching his ego, his academic self-concept to the outcome. A failure here was laden with personal meaning. With so much at stake, there was no room for fun or play or exploration, which greatly enhance learning.
One of the major lessons here is that, ultimately, learning is learning, whether you’re doing it to master a video game or an academic subject. Learning how to beat level 8 on Super Mario Brothers is not so different from learning how to beat Chapter 6 in Anatomy. Many of the skills and traits required are the same: cognitive flexibility, creativity, risk-taking, trial and error, recruiting additional resources, asking for help.
Tolerating Frustration is Vital to Long-Term Success
There’s also a bigger benefit to experiencing a struggle and managing through it. Yes, the struggle in the moment is a sign that you’re in the process of learning the topic at hand. It’s also a sign that you’re in the process of learning to experience, manage, and persevere through difficult, complicated, and frustrating tasks – a foundational skill that’s vital for long-term success in most fields.
Building a greater degree of frustration tolerance is essential if you want to accomplish anything in the fields of science, technology or mathematics, for example. Yet these are the very subjects where some students mistakenly expect perfection. We need to help students expand their zone of tolerance, to help them push the boundaries and stay with the challenge before they enter a breakdown, give up or collapse.
It is so important that we teach students what struggle is, why it matters, why it is so essential to learning. Talk to your students about their academic challenges. Help them make connections between challenges in school and out of school. The skills and resourcefulness and resilience that students have cultivated in other areas can serve them well in academic subjects. Be careful of investing too much meaning in a moment of struggle. Stay lighter, stay flexible and creative, and get help when needed. If we teach students to love struggle and embrace it, and not fear it, we will make them stronger in many areas of life.