To Sit with a Struggle

“Need help?” I asked.

But April shook her head.

“No, Mrs. Swartz,” she said. “I want to struggle more on my own.”

This was an important sign of growth for April, an honor roll student who earned A’s with little effort. As April bent back over her advanced Venn perplexer diagram, her forehead furrowed again.

April was using language I had given her with the Struggle Continuum. Far too often, April had been on the easy side of the continuum, and she shied when she encountered anything left of comfort.

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“You need to get accustomed to the alert stage,” I had told her. “It’s okay not to know an answer immediately—to feel uneasy, to struggle. This activates your brain in new ways. You don’t need help until you get to the anxious stage.”

April understood. She ran track and often heard no-pain-no-gain talk. Her coach was always telling her to embrace the pain and then run past it.

Being able to place herself on the Struggle Continuum, helped April take charge of her learning. And she was competitive enough to ask for help only when she reached the anxious stage.

The longer I taught, the more strategies I found to help students tolerate struggle. Here are some tools:

  • Normalize struggle.

“This won’t be easy,” I’d tell students before handing them a problem. You’ll need to grapple with it. See what you can do.”

Rather than discourage students, this approach seemed to give them freedom to struggle.

  • Model struggle.

During the Venn perplexer unit, I worked on one, as well, at home in the evening or at lunch breaks. I was challenged, students knew, and they asked to see my progress. My bafflement made them more willing to struggle.

  • Encourage collaborative struggle.

Some students preferred company as they struggled. They worked best when they talked with each other, figured together, and faced the possibility of failure with a friend.

  • Practice struggling with low-stakes problems.

The hardest problems I gave students were not evaluated. Subtracting the worry of a grade point average increased student willingness to tackle yet another logic puzzle or mind bender or acrostic.

  • Give struggle strategies:
    • Try a new route. If one approach doesn’t work, come at the problem another way.
    • Translate the problem into another form—a list or chart or picture or conversation.
    • Do something else and then go back. A fresh look sometimes makes concepts clear.
    • When you feel anxious, get help.

A willingness to move beyond comfort, to grapple, to sit with a struggle is an important skill for life.

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