No, I am quite certain you can do this on your own now.
March 4, 2012 7:20 PM   Subscribe

How can you tell if a child really needs help with something, or if they're just seeking attention?

Alright, I'll be the first to say it: kids really baffle me.

I am working as a tutor to a sizable group of 9 and 10 year olds right now and have been for 4 months. Each child is very capable and quite smart in his or her own way, but a few of them have this learned helplessness sort of thing that really drives me nuts. If I've done a mini lesson with them or something, and have released them to do an activity, no matter how explicit my instructions are and how well I've taught the lesson, these children almost immediately come up to me and say, "I don't get it." I end up walking them through whatever it is we're working on and then I don't get to work with any other children. I've tried, "No, you should try it yourself", "Why do you need my help with this when you already showed me you know how to do it?", etc, ad nauseum. The same 5 kids come up every time.

None of them have learning disabilities; they just seem to insist on having their hands held when working on everything from language arts to math to whatever. That being said, they've cried wolf so many times that I don't want to deny them assistance when they really need it, but I can't distinguish the need from the neediness anymore.

How can I help these children be unafraid to try work independently and stay at it before coming to me for help, and how can I tell when they really truly need my help so I don't just brush them off? It's becoming a Thing and it's my fault.
posted by iLoveTheRain to Education (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My 9-year-old tries this every now and then, and I find that the best method is simply not to let him.
"Okay, do your homework."
"I can't figure this out."
"Keep trying."
(thirty seconds pass)
"I really can't figure it ouuut..."
"Then you'll have to keep trying, won't you."
(a minute passes)
"Well, when you're done trying, let me know."
"Nope. You're not done yet."
And then I leave the room.

Not being able to figure it out in the first five minutes won't put them in danger. So let them sit there for five minutes. Perhaps they'll get bored enough staring at the page that they'll give it a try.
posted by Etrigan at 7:26 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I experience this with college age students. The best solution I've come up with is insisting that students formulate a coherent question I can answer before coming to me, though I'm not sure how well that will generalize to 9 year olds.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:29 PM on March 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Perhaps you can set a time limit. "Everyone in the class must try the exercise on their own for 10 minutes." Use a timer. If a kid wants help, s/he must show work when s/he asks. If no work is shown, then send them back for another 10 minutes to work on their own.

I'd be these kids have been told they are smart, and when they can't figure something out without trying, they panic a little. I don't know how you can emphasize with kids this age that trying and failing is still learning, but that seems to me to be the thing they need to learn, more than how to do whatever math or English you're trying to teach them.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:37 PM on March 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I think the best thing to do is to refuse to help (or help them last) if they can't clearly explain what they tried and where they got confused. Tell them that simply saying "I don't get it" won't get any useful help from you... but if they can clearly say what they tried and where it stopped making sense, you will put a lot of effort into helping from there.

This is easiest if you give them a task with well-defined initial steps. So if they come up to you saying "I don't get it" you can say "What was the first thing I told you to try? Did you do it? Let me see. ... How about the second thing?" and so forth. If they don't even know what the first thing was, then tell them they need to work on their listening skills and you will help the students who listened and tried before you get around to them. (Almost certainly at that point they will go away and then magically remember what that first thing was, but if they've gotten into the habit of not listening to you at all this might take a couple of tries. Be firm).

Basically you need to make it so that it's easier for them to do it themselves, or at least try to do it themselves, than to ask you for help every step of the way.
posted by forza at 7:38 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

All teachers deal with this to some degree, and there are lots of strategies to deal with it. "Praise, prompt and leave," and "Three before me (ask three other kids before coming to me)" are strategies to allow students to either investigate their own resources more fully, or ask a partner or other student before bringing their question to you. Rock star education consultants like Fred Jones and Spencer Kagan have developed named strategies designed to help students teach the material to themselves and each other, after the teacher has shown and modeled the skill, and Kagan strategies are used in schools all over the US and UK.

All that said, as you point out at the end of your post, the fact that you continue to acquiesce to their demands is, in fact, training them to only do work with you at their side.

Praise, prompt and leave is a Fred Jones strategy that requires you to have whatever you're working on diagrammed in explicit, multi-step detail where all students can see it. When helpless children call for you, you walk over, point out how many steps they've completed correctly (praise), ask them what they have to do next (prompt), and walk away (leave).

Kagan and CRISS strategies are whole systems of strategies designed to build interdependence among students and independence from you. google both and see what resources are available - in school systems, both are multiday trainings, and are frequently required and reimbursed for educational staff. Check with your school system to see if you are eligible.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:42 PM on March 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

Seat assignments. Make them sit right in front of you. This solves a host of problems ranging from bad eyesight to lack of focus. Kids pay much better attention with a teacher staring them straight in the face.

Ask them questions throughout the lesson to reinforce the lesson, phrased simply with effusive verbal rewards. Sometimes just a simple "Sally, what did I just say?" will help.

You can also try leaving a completed example on the board. When students ask for help, walk them through the example again, but prompt them to use their refreshed skills to help themselves.
posted by acidic at 7:50 PM on March 4, 2012

Kids process information differently. Have you tried changing up how you explain the task?

You can also do things like pair up students together, so they can help each other out. In order to focus these pairs or teams, provide an incentive, such as stickers or, for older kids, candy. Even playing for points is enough sometimes.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:03 PM on March 4, 2012

I'm not an educator, but obvs, I've been to school. The students you are describing don't feel confident because they do not know the absolute joy of the "Aha!" moment.

It's good that you break these students of this bad habit now.

I have a friend that was just off training with a new company - all new hires in the training have experience in their field. But the oldest new hire in the class with the most experience in the industry? In his 40's, this guy tried to get EVERYONE to do his work for him, down to playing so dumb HR had to practically fill out his paper work for him and waiting to take the online tests last so he could pump the other students for their answers to the tests.

- Sending those kids off to use the work of their fellow classmates is NOT the answer.

- Encouraging those kids to perceive the act of "figuring it out on their own" as safe and positive IS the answer.

Some people love puzzles (me!) and some people don't know they like puzzles yet! Teach these students to love puzzling things out.

I am not an educator, but I think doing what I suggest includes designing exercises that break the "figuring out" into smaller nuggets. Once you teach children the "formula" for learning, they can apply that formula to teach anything to themselves.


I think what you are looking for is an approach that communicates the Trivium and the Quadrivium.

For ideas and direction on lesson plans, you should send a fax or snail mail letter to John Taylor Gatto (he's so cool!) or simply contact the foundation he started The Odysseus Group.

The website has a lot of info and a documentary you can watch to give you a primer. You can read about John Taylor Gatto and his career on his Wikipedia page. You can find HEAPS of podcast interviews with him on the web. Man, he's so cool!

Via Wikipedia:

"He was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. In 1991, he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled "I Quit, I Think," to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, saying that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living." "
posted by jbenben at 8:37 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding jbenben: please don't pair them up with other students or in other ways encourage them to ask other students rather than you. It makes life easier on you, but worse on the other students (and, since these are the students who aren't causing the problem, creates perverse incentives towards more learned helplessness overall: would you rather be the student who doesn't complain and then gets to deal with the complainers as your "reward"?).

More importantly, it doesn't solve the underlying issue. Learning how to approach a problem when the solution isn't obvious is a very important, key skill in life that these kids have to learn to master at some point.
posted by forza at 8:54 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Not an expert but I have helped out in classrooms and read a bit on learning. If these were my students, i would start with a rule that everyone has to tackle a problem on their own for the first x minutes. (Be very clear what the steps are, so they know where to start.) If they ask you a question sooner, say "Even if you don't know how to solve this problem, I'm sure you know where to do start so start at the beginning and keep working until you get stuck." Then when they get stuck, ask them what they did so far. Praise them. Ask them what they think they should do next. If they say, "I don't know", say "tell me two or three things that you might do next" Then "whcih one do you think you should try?" Then insist that they try their idea and see what happens before you will give them any help. In fact, your new rule might be "I will only help you find where you went wrong - once you are back on track, you can solve it yourself."
posted by metahawk at 9:17 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I was a teacher and now coach teachers, both new and veteran.)

Yeah, it'd be awesome if the students could just work on the tasks independently after your mini-lesson. Before you ask students to work on their own without your direct help, though, make very very sure that students have all the resources they need to complete the work independently. Some of those students may very well be just looking for attention, but some of them (and there will definitely be overlap with the first group) just need more help with the assignment. This 'help' doesn't need to come from one-on-one tutoring, though. It could come through scaffolding assignments (ie breaking down tasks into smaller pieces, with clearly laid out directions, and examples as needed), providing some sort of resource page (ie area formulas, definitions, a sheet with a sample already made), or allowing students to work together (which can be extremely effective, but takes great skill to make happen and may not be worth the effort for you if you're not a full-time teacher). Then, when students come to you for help, you can point them to a resource rather than giving them a private mini-lesson. This teaches students not just THAT they can work independently, but also HOW to work independently. (This 'finding and using resources' thing is also a hugely important study/life skill, and if you're working with that on the kids, that's gonna help them out a ton in the long run!)

Also: be careful not to assume that because the resources you've given students were enough for you, or another set of students, or your own kids, that they should be enough for these particular students. Everyone learns differently. Some students do just fine when you model something in a mini-lesson and ask them to try it on their own, but some students need more experiential learning, some students need an opportunity to verbally process, some students need more examples, etc. Be open to changing up how you present material!
posted by violetish at 9:30 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I, too, experience this with college age students and have been thinking of how to tackle it. I know what's going on; they have a problem with something they're doing and instead of taking their own time to sit and try to parse what they did wrong and how to fix it, they come to me so that I can tell them IMMEDIATELY what went wrong and how to fix it. Basically, they are being lazy and/or impatient.

Liking the answers so far, and looking forward to more!
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:45 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, others have said it but it bears repeating: make them ask a specific question that shows they were listening and trying.

Bad: I don't get it.
Bad: That didn't make sense.
Bad: Can you explain it again?

Good: When you said that we were supposed to use adjectives in our sentences, what does that mean?
Good: You said that our chemicals shouldn't touch, but I was wondering what would happen if they did?
Good: I was following until you said we had to put tab B into slot A. What comes next?

If they ask one of the bad questions, I redirect it with something like, "I can't help you if I don't know what didn't make sense. Which part was confusing? Did you understand x?"

Also: Socratic questioning is a skill that is worth learning in situations like this one.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:03 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I work in a school, in various positions though I'm not a teacher - and I encounter this in my own kid. Rather than saying "keep trying" or "try it yourself" I say "Let me see you try" and wait for a second and watch. Sometimes they're starting off wrong, for whatever reason, and that's why they can't proceed. Or it's not about wanting the attention, but needing a nudge to get over a speed bump. Or they've watched you do something, but haven't paid attention to the details and need reminders about not just how, but why it's broken down. So once they're on the right track, you can leave and come back. (Yes, praise, prompt and leave.)

Here's a silly example: In the lunchroom, or on field trips, some kids pull out a banana, and can't open it (YES, and don't get me started). While very often that's because their parents always have done it for them, it's also because while they see that the stem gets pulled back, they don't see the thumbnail going in. So, of course it's frustrating -- the banana is not opening and it's getting all mushed, though they seem to be doing it right! They know in theory how a banana is peeled, but not in practice.

So instead of doing it for them in slow motion and showing them again and again (because that's still no guarantee they're actually watching) I put their hands in the right place, and tell them to use their thumbnail. But it's when I tell them to open it "like a monkey" that they remember to do it that way on their own from then on. Making an association/connection at that one point where the thumbnail goes in - that's what makes the the practice stick in their heads.

It's not just showing kids how to do something - it's showing them how to remember how to do something.
posted by peagood at 6:51 AM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

I volunteer in a school library and I run into this issue often when kids are trying to do structured projects / reading assignments. (I'm also a parent, and I've seen this in my own kid as well.)

I think it's mainly a confidence issue, rather than a laziness issue -- kids are often afraid to fail, especially in front of other people. The way I deal with it is NOT to say what you have been saying -- at least, not in the way you have been doing it. In my experience "No, you should try it yourself" is the sort of confrontational statement that just sets you up for an argument with the sorts of kids who like to argue. I think a flat out denial of help like that should be saved for kids who have ignored repeated redirection and are disrupting the class / continually pushing your buttons with their requests for help (and when used, it works with argumentative kids only if followed by outlining a consequence for further arguments: "If you ask me again you will be asked to leave the room.")

What I say instead is, "What do you think you should do?" "What do you think this word says?" "How do you think you should solve this problem?" I ask one or two simple questions to get the kid started on doing the work him or herself -- something I know the kid can probably answer -- which tends to gives just enough of a confidence boost that he or she is then willing to keep going. If the kid really can't answer the question then I know help is actually required.

Another trick is to ask the kid to repeat your previous instructions -- "What did I tell you to do?" Some kids get overwhelmed by multi-step projects and just need to think through directions for a second time and break the steps down in their minds before they can successfully follow them.

Either approach boosts confidence in the kids who aren't confident, flags the kids who need actual help, AND tends to shut down true attention-seekers and lazy kids, because you are acknowledging their request (for help), so they can't really argue, but you're not actually giving them what they want (which is for you to focus all your energy on them / do their work for them).
posted by BlueJae at 9:15 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, I should add, too, that just because a kid has succeeded at doing something before, that does NOT mean he or she will be able to do it a second time without prompting. ESPECIALLY when it comes to things like math and reading. A kid who was able to solve one multiplication word problem might not realize that a second problem operates on the same basic principle. A kid who was able to identify a noun one context might not recognize it in a new unfamiliar style of sentence. Etc.

The patterns in certain sorts of academic work that link one sort of problem solving situation to another are obvious to educated adults because we have had lots and lots of practice doing the same sort of work again and again. Part of your job as an educator is to teach kids how to recognize those patterns, but it takes time. Even really smart kids might need to try a new skill ten or twenty times to really get it down.
posted by BlueJae at 9:26 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

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