Some students struggle in school, but there are ways to help them overcome academic challenges.

Whether they are challenged in math, English, science, or history, the result is similar. The notion that they aren’t good at something leads them to believe they just didn’t have what it takes to get through it.

Sadly, struggling students often give up, believing they just aren’t good at school.

Many people are familiar with the term “growth mindset,” popularized by Carol Dweck. Her research found that people who believe they can develop their talents through effort, strategy, and guidance have a growth mindset. They tend to have better outcomes than people with a fixed mindset, who think talent is an innate gift.

The growth mindset is based on the understanding that the brain is like a muscle, and that effort, or perseverance, helps that muscle develop.

Everyone learns from mistakes and failures, creating more resilient brains.

But effort alone is not enough to help struggling students. They need learning strategies, also called “struggle strategies,” when they face academic challenges.

Using “Struggle Strategies” to Spark Learning

Effort without struggle strategies rarely translates to learning: Over time, students will devalue their effort because they won’t see benefits from those attempts.

In order to avoid emphasizing effort over concrete learning techniques, researchers have identified a number of practical strategies to help students learn when they struggle. 

8 Strategies for Students Who Struggle

  1. Clarify the task: Have students carefully reread the directions or ask for more information on the assignment to be sure they understand what they are being asked to do.
  2. Ask for help early: Students shouldn’t wait until they are lost and discouraged to seek help. Ask them to be as specific as they can about what they need help with.
  3. Check their steps: Review the process they used to try to complete the assignment, checking to be sure nothing was wrong or forgotten.
  4. Think out loud: Encourage students to vocalize about what they are doing to solve the problem, and when they do, share why you think their approach is the right one. When people talk out loud, they often listen as if they were hearing another person, and the source of a mistake or problem may jump out.
  5. Break it down: Teach students how to take a large and complex task or problem and break it into smaller steps.
  6. Write down what they know: Have students write down what they know or what they can do in order to identify what they don’t know. When they have identified the gaps in their knowledge or skills, encourage them to seek help to fill in those gaps.
  7. Try another method: If they know more than one way to complete the task or assignment, encourage them to try a different method. Even if the new method isn’t successful, a new approach may help them better understand the task or the assignment.
  8. Make a plan: For tasks and assignments that will take a significant amount of time to complete, have students develop a plan to identify the steps they need to take to complete the task—and clarify when they will take those steps.

Discovering Internal Motivations

When students are equipped with concrete skills for tackling challenges, it helps boost their motivation for future tasks. And helping students to understand that effort improves their brains provides another powerful motivation.

Every day, we are learning more about how to help students build on their inner strengths and motivations. Struggle strategies are another Youth Development tool that can be used to help all students succeed in school, life, and communities.

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