I Can’t, I Won’t

Originally Published: March/April 2005

Most of us are familiar with the child that wants to quit if the task doesn’t appear easy instantly. He can’t seem to handle even a tiny challenge. Left alone to complete assignments, he may avoid the task by passively daydreaming, or actively finding something else to do—something fun that has absolutely no connection to school. Even if we sit beside him, he may complain and refuse to try. What can be done?

Recognizing possible reasons behind this behavior is the first step toward finding a solution. Is it willful disobedience? It may appear so since the teacher’s demands seem to be ignored. However, fear of failure or the natural desire to avoid what leaves us overwhelmed is the more likely culprit. Self-critical perfectionists make high demands on themselves, becoming almost paralyzed when something seems too difficult to carry out perfectly. They need constant encouragement and reminders that mistakes are more than acceptable, they are essential to learning. Then there are the kids who have amassed so many failures and so few successes, that even the slightest challenge triggers memories of past efforts that led nowhere. Now they are too discouraged to try.

Our response to the student makes a difference. Harshness adds to his stress, making it even more difficult for him to think. However, a calm manner and an approach that helps him succeed will teach him how to jump over that hurdle of initial frustration, to work on a problem instead of avoiding it. Therefore, a basic rule-of-thumb is to meet the student’s frustration by backing up and beginning with a related task that he will find easy. This defuses the situation, reminds him of what he does know, and, encourages him to cooperate. Then move forward with baby-steps in order to let him experience a series of small successes.

Imagine being overwhelmed because your house is a mess and you don’t know where to begin. Those with the skill of breaking down a task into manageable bits will focus on one room at a time. They are likely to begin with the room that can be cleaned the most quickly in order to give themselves a motivating surge of success before continuing on to the next room. Those without a strategy may find themselves quickly off track, focusing on sorting through drawers or closets. After hours of effort the house remains cluttered and their frustration has grown. If a well-meaning friend recommends self-discipline—“just get it done”—the response would very likely be, “but I can’t.”

Well, many children lack an inner sense of organization. Consequently, unless the lesson is something they can do based on memory alone, they are likely to have no idea how to approach the work they’ve been told to do on their own. Repeated failure may have so reinforced their low opinion of themselves, that they are now too embarrassed or discouraged to even ask for help. Avoidance seems like the best option.

While maturity can result in kids being more able to focus or being developmentally ready to handle a concept or skill, it will not bring an ability to handle a challenge. Just like that harried housekeeper, students need instruction that begins with someone else breaking down the task, showing them what to do, and giving them the opportunity to participate successfully.

For instance, a high school student might find fractions confusing when the denominator contains variables (letters instead of numbers). If his mind freezes when he must add such fractions, write a problem using simple whole numbers in the denominator and ask him to add those fractions. If he has forgotten how, you will have found a gap that must be addressed before he can proceed. Go over the method for finding a common denominator, giving him simple problems to try in your presence. When he can successfully solve three or four in a row (leaving him confident) take the next step. Write a problem using a different variable for each denominator. Once he can solve a few, move on to problems with a combination of variables and numbers. All this may take a few minutes, or a few days.

Whatever the subject, if a student has no answer (a shrug or “I don’t know”) when you’ve backed up to something you think he should know, offer him a choice. This will keep him engaged in the thinking process. In the illustration above, you might write two fractions with different denominators and ask, “Can you add these the way they are, or do you have to make changes so that they have the same denominators?” If his choice is wrong, instead of saying, ‘No, let me show you,” do what he suggests and lead him to see why it is wrong. In this case, an illustration of each fraction and of his answer could be used to show him that the amount of space would be different. In the problem one-fourth plus one-half, a circle with one-fourth shaded, a circle with one-half shaded, and a final circle with one sixth shaded should make it obvious that since the one-sixth portion is smaller than either of the other shaded areas, the denominators must be changed.

When my son was seven or eight, I wanted to encourage him to make discoveries. This is an approach that increases retention, teaches kids to think, and has the added bonus of leaving them with self-confidence. While some kids will jump in and try all sorts of options until they figure it out, my son, the perfectionist, typically quit if the solution wasn’t apparent within seconds.

I showed him a picture of Big Bird wearing a baker’s cap and told him to make one for himself. I provided an old, white bedsheet, pencil, tape measure, and sewing machine, and stayed nearby. Overwhelmed, he wouldn’t even try. So, I implemented the strategies. I began with a small step along with and a choice so obvious he would be certain to succeed: “Well, it looks like two pieces. What shape should you draw for the piece that fits around your head, a triangle or a rectangle?” He chose the rectangle, noticed the tape measure and measured around his head to determine length. He drew, cut out, and sewed the ends of the rectangle.

Unfortunately, the band sat on top of his head instead of fitting around his forehead. He cried. I reminded him that he had been right to draw a rectangle and to use the tape measure. Then I held the seam toward him and asked if he could see why it might be too small. His face registered relief. He drew a new, longer rectangle, sewed the seam, and tried it on. Success. He hesitated again. “What should I do next?”

I returned to the strategy of baby-steps and gave him a choice: “Do you think the puffy part is a triangle or a circle?” He drew a circle, cut it out, and sewed it to the band, triumphant.

I could have abandoned my plan of discovery and reacted to my son’s frustration by dictating each step instead of finding ways to help him reason and make decisions. After all, the assignment would have been completed, and I’m sure he would still have enjoyed wearing the cap. Of course, then he would assume the next challenge was impossible since he had needed me to tell him exactly what to do. Instead, he now had a memory of making right decisions and overcoming his fears—the first of many such memories of success that built his self-confidence bit by bit.

With continual intervention and many, many, many small successes, students will internalize strategies and finally have the willingness to apply them instead of turning away from anything they find difficult. Certainly, it requires some time and effort on the part of the teacher, but so does any worthwhile goal.