Challenging and Inspiring Students without the Overwhelm or Fear of Failure

Quote-MotivationWe all want those things in our homeschool or classroom, right?! In this series, Thoughts on Teaching, I’ve been diving into some of the deeper issues we have as educators. How do we create an environment that helps students blossom and reach their full potential?

Today I’m going to talk about the fear of failure and the struggle that can create for some students.

Quote-Edison2 In some ways, I notice that LD is in a new season of his learning. He is in 7th grade. The work and readings are more demanding. He has more independent work. The work is more abstract and requires a different way of thinking.

And then there is his growing maturity. There are times that he impresses me with his ability to work independently without much guidance from me. But, (you heard that coming, right?), there are other times I am exasperated with his lack of focus, especially when I feel it is something he can do on his own. So, some days he absolutely exceeds my expectations and other days, I’m scratching my head wondering where I went wrong. It’s like I’m watching a Middle School ping-pong match between maturity and immaturity.

I’m telling you all this because I know this isn’t unique to our family. 🙂 It’s part of growing up. My friends and I have had long conversations about our Middle School kids. But, what do we do to help them through this period?

I’ve been reading a book the past week or so that had some extremely valuable insights. I wanted to share some of those with you today. This was a book I grabbed at the used book store, Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School. (affiliate link)  The first part of the title caught my eye… Teaching Boys, but I almost put it back when I saw the rest… Who Struggle in School. After all, I thought to myself, my son really doesn’t struggle academically.

But then, once I started thumbing through (and as I began to read the book at home), I realized that he does struggle… as does anyone who is attempting to learn something new! And for someone like LD delving into more complex and abstract material for the first time, well, I/we can see that struggle almost daily.

Let’s face it, we all struggle when we are learning something new and different, right? We adults just know to push through the discomfort and exasperation (even that self-doubt and voice in our head that says we’ll never get it). This is a perspective about learning that comes with experience and maturity.

But for some kids when they face a new learning challenge, they can have those uncomfortable feelings and start to doubt their abilities. They might even internalize this struggle as failure, self-doubt or self-worth… “I’m stupid.” “I will never understand math.”

Sometimes learning can become overwhelming and will bring out

  • anxiety
  • discomfort
  • fear
  • anger
  • frustration.

Here’s what I mean…

Think back to a time when you didn’t understand something quickly and easily. For me, it’s when I run into a mysterious computer issue. No matter what I do and what I try, I can’t get it to work. So, I call in my computer-wizard Hubby to help me out. But when he comes over, I find myself hostile and angry. He’s coming over as a cheerful, willing teacher, but me? I’ve had it with the computer! In that moment, I’m am NOT receptive. I am not ready to learn. I’m not fired up. And I’m certainly not enthusiastic about the material. In other words, I’m a downright LOUSY student!!

In that moment, what I obviously need is an attitude adjustment, right? I’m now imagining Hubby greeting me with a hot cup of tea, whisking me away from the computer, and rubbing my shoulders. He’d let me take a few deep breaths as he murmurs, “Oh yes, this stuff can really get to me too!” I would quickly get out of my snit and would be in the right frame of mind to learn.

So now, back to kids who are struggling over new materials or having a hard time getting complex thoughts onto paper. We need to make sure they know this struggle is natural. We want to push them, but not let them get overwhelmed (angry, frustrated, despondent). We need to make sure this struggle doesn’t affect their self-esteem or worse call into question the value of school and learning itself.

It boils down to building a repertoire of responses as a teacher/educator, to respond in ways that help kids through those challenging moments.

Kathleen Cleveland brought out some excellent pointers and I’ve added in some of my thoughts to each of her suggestions:

*Provide support: Offer the kids genuine time and focused attention. Don’t leave the kids to flounder through material on their own. Don’t belittle or respond with exasperation or frustration. Let kids know it is okay to fail. We all learn from our mistakes.


*Guide: Set clear expectations and provide feedback. Give positive reinforcement (but be careful not to over-praise or be disingenuous).

*Reinforce and Review: Help the kids build their tools and skills over time. Spot check their learning. Be sure to go over new concepts, vocabulary, rules, etc. frequently. Don’t assume that because you’ve gone over something once the kids will have internalized and will understand the material tomorrow (or next week). True learning takes time. Circle round and cover the material again (next week, next month, next year). Come at the material in different ways and from different angles.


Provide opportunities for physical movement. Keep in mind that experts estimate that people can only focus well for about 15 minutes. Change things up periodically. Break things into chunks/segments.

Provide opportunities for social interaction and cooperative learning.

Make sure the kids are physically comfortable.

Reduce distractions & noise.

*Ignite: Provide opportunities for active, hands-on learning (See this previous post, Thoughts on Teaching: Meaningful Teaching Activities, for tons of ideas!)

*Empower: Provide opportunities for kids to take their learning to the outside world.

Provide milestones in their learning so they can see just how far they’ve come. Build on each small success.

As educators we walk a fine line, trying to stimulate, challenge and inspire the students without overwhelming or discouraging them, right?  What an exciting journey we are on with them!

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on teaching with you today!

Happy Homeschooling and Terrific Teaching!! ~Liesl

See you again soon here or over at our Homeschool Den Facebook Page! Don’t forget to Subscribe to our Homeschool Den Newsletter. ~Liesl

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase.

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