“She’s always been good at math, but this year she’s really struggling. I don’t know what to think – should I get her a tutor?” About this time of year some parents of middle- and high-schoolers grow concerned at the escalating frustration exhibited over homework. Complaints of “I can’t do this!” and “I give up!” come from students who used to get A’s and B’s without exerting much effort.
And that’s where the trouble lies. Unlike students who face challenges with reading comprehension or with tricky math concepts, students who’ve had an easy time in elementary school haven’t developed perseverance. They’re used to seeing the answer immediately, or arriving at the correct conclusion without any difficulty. When they have to spend more time analyzing or even making some failed attempts before solving a problem, they get frustrated and “hit the wall” – a term teachers use when students can’t seem to go any farther.
How can a parent help? With empathy (you knew I was going to say that), encouragement, patience, and some negotiating skills. First, try calling it what it is: “You sound really frustrated. I’m thinking that’s because you’re so smart, school has always been easy for you. You haven’t had to work very hard to keep up your good grades.” (See how that came out sounding like a compliment?)
Next, offer an encouraging word or two (but don’t go overboard): “Try reading it over again and thinking about it differently.” Of course, this won’t be met with, “Gee, thanks, Mom. I’ll do that!” Instead, be prepared to hear irritation: “No matter how many times I read it, I’m NEVER going to get it!”
This is a good time for me to mention the red zone and the blue zone. The red zone is when tempers are short, exasperation is high, and the potential for an explosion is at its peak. Nobody can be reasonable when feeling this way, so it’s best to save “helpful speeches” (aka lectures) or even gentle advice for a time when everyone’s calm, reasonable, and more ready to listen. In other words, when they’re in the blue zone.
After you’ve spoken encouragement, be prepared to witness more anxiety and frustration. Sit back, be patient, and let the struggle happen. When you hear another threat of giving up, switch to negotiation mode: “Tell you what – try it for 10 more minutes, and then let’s (call your teacher) (phone a friend) (see what we can find on the internet).” Or go for a bigger prize: “Well, if you’ll at least work through every problem, we can take a break and run to Starbuck’s. When we get back, (I) (your mother) (smart neighbor Steve) can take a look and see how you’ve done.”
Perseverance is a lot like swimming; it can only be taught with practice and experience. When given a chance to work through the struggle and come out successfully on the other side, teens learn it’s worth their while to hang in there until they’ve conquered the task.
And when you’re tempted to jump in and rescue your teen, consider the story of the man who “helped” the butterfly out of its cocoon. Because it missed the opportunity to battle its own way out, the butterfly was unable to fly – it had no strength in its wings.