Rethinking Intelligence: Why Is My Student Struggling?

how can students benefit from struggling?

When working with students, whether as a new or a seasoned Learning Coach, a vast amount of worry and apprehension about learning can surface. Some questions we hear as teachers are, “Why does it take so long for my student to understand this?” or “What’s wrong with my child? He did the lesson and still didn’t get it!” Other Learning Coaches say that their children must review a topic multiple times, and they ask, “What can I do to get my student to understand things faster?”

Although these are valid concerns, they point to a trend in how people in the United States think about learning: that students should “get” things—right away. We tend to assume that students should be able to do one lesson and have a new skill mastered. The Western mind-set thinks that smart people learn things without much extra help or hard work. It is ingrained in our culture that success in school is based on intelligence, and that intelligence is something you have or you don’t have.

Another—and perhaps a more accurate—way to look at intelligence is to think about it as something gained through hard work and struggle. Children are expected to practice, practice, practice, until they master a skill. This means that we should change our frame of thought and our folk theory to see struggle as a good thing.

Struggling can teach children to work hard for something and to stick with it. This helps them develop emotional strength and perseverance. When they reach their goal, kids should be complimented for working so hard. With this approach to learning, the focus is on not giving up, which is the road to success and to building personal grit.

The way we think about struggle affects our behavior as students, teachers, and Learning Coaches. If we think of struggle as an indicator of low intelligence, then students will feel bad about themselves when they struggle. With this mind-set, teachers will worry that a student isn’t capable of doing the work or that they failed to teach the material well. And Learning Coaches or parents become concerned that their child isn’t smart enough or that they neglected to provide the support he or she needed.

Instead, why not consider changing how we think about struggle? If we redefined struggle as an indicator of strength and recognize that it teaches students to face down challenges, then we would view challenges that students face as positive experiences. After all, our goal is not just to teach students academic knowledge, but to also teach them skills that will assist them in all areas. Helping kids learn to overcome difficulties is a lesson that will last a lifetime—imagine that!

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