A while back, I was working online with a younger student on a math problem that was challenging for him. He was getting frustrated.
“Look, kiddo,” I said (or words to that effect), “when you’re doing something and it feels hard, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It just means that you’re learning something challenging. Everyone feels that way when they’re learning something new that’s hard. You’re not alone.”
My student got really quiet. There was a long pause.
“Thank you for that,” he said quietly.
I wasn’t expecting such a solemn response, and I wasn’t expecting gratitude, either. But then I realized—maybe no one had ever told him this before! Maybe every other time he had struggled over something new, he’d thought he was defective or inadequate.
I brought this up when I was talking shop with a friend who also teaches. She shared a similar story about having a new piano student break down in tears at his first lesson with her. When she mentioned this to the kid’s mother, the mother brushed it off and just said, “Oh, yeah, he’s been crying through all of his piano lessons for at least a year.”
But when the kid cried, my friend took it upon herself to ask him why. He talked to her about how he was frustrated and talked about what he’d rather be doing than playing piano. They had a whole discussion about stuff that, apparently, everyone else had ignored or glossed over.
Coincidentally, after that talk, he never cried again in a lesson with my friend, and ended up being one of her best students.
How can we make kids okay with things being hard? I think it helps to state the obvious, even if it seems … too obvious. It’s normal if something feels hard. Or, If you’re crying, something’s wrong and maybe we should talk about it.
As adults, it’s easy to forget that things that now seem obvious to us were not always so clear. But at some point, someone explained these things to us, or we figured them out the hard way, on our own.
Sometimes I’m afraid to tell my students these obvious things because I’m worried they might think I’m being cheesy or meddling in their emotions. But it hasn’t happened yet, which leads me to believe that they really need to hear this stuff.
I cried myself to sleep over my math homework
On optimal challenge
Case study: confused by math instruction in a foreign language