Thinking child with red glasses

BES Blog: A Power Struggle or The Power of Struggle?

I think that the best thing that ever happened to me as a teacher was becoming a parent. Once my children started school, I quickly realized being a parent actually made me a better teacher.  I could finally understand the evening conflicts, the push and pull of balancing extracurricular activities and schoolwork, running to Walgreens in your pajamas to get that poster board, and experiencing the dreaded comment, “That isn’t how my teacher does it!”  If you haven’t heard that one yet, hang on, it’s coming.

My mentors in the “business” have always been so sweet to offer pearls of wisdom or nuggets of advice to help me along this adventure we call parenthood.  After attending many of the Grade Level Coffees over the past few months and hearing comments from parents, I felt compelled to write down some thoughts from my own experience of being both a parent and a teacher.

In a world of instant gratification, flashing screens, and total connectivity, students get feedback constantly.  They instantly know if something is right, wrong, how to, how not to, etc.  Seems like the world is at their fingertips. There are very few opportunities to practice patience, take a moment and use their own independent thinking.  But what about those nights of homework, projects and research?  How do we grow minds when it seems like the whole world is flashing before their eyes?  We want our children to succeed at whatever they are tackling.  It’s hard to see them struggle and not want to fix it immediately or at least make the path easier.  This has become much harder as we have all adapted to getting immediate answers whenever and wherever we need them.

Fast learning isn’t the same as deep learning.  For learning to be meaningful, it is supposed to challenge every student in some way.  Teachers want students to stretch, persist, think differently, and yes, even struggle.  Even John Dewey, early 1900’s philosopher and reformer of education, described learning as beginning with a dilemma.  But as a parent, having our children struggle through math problems, science concepts or problem solving and decision making is hard, time consuming, frustrating and is the leading reason that I get my hair “enhanced” every four weeks.  We have busy lives, strict schedules and there are only so many hours in the day.

How can we, as parents, support our children, cultivate those growing minds while saving our patience and sanity? Encourage your children to use the tools that they have been given.  Examples could be notes, books, and videos that reteach concepts.  Encourage them to ask questions, write them down and use different strategies to solve those problems and answer those questions.  Yes, that means it could be different than the way we learned.  It also means it may take more time than we would prefer.  We want our children to be confident in their own thinking.  They need us to let them stretch even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

One of the basics teachers learn is to allow sufficient wait time after posing a question.  We also know through brain research that incorrect answers actually grow our brains.  Coming back to a problem and practicing deep thinking about that problem allows brain connections to be made that would not be possible had someone helped the student with through same problem.

Struggle doesn’t mean frustration and shutting down.  It is stretching, thinking about things differently, trying a new method or strategy and persistence.  Encouraging children to persist, explore ideas and struggle with tasks leads to deeper thinking.  Teachers want students to develop lasting connections with material and develop solid skills for problem solving and decision-making. The effect of struggle is powerful learning.

Wait! Does that mean that parenting is a struggle? I’ll let you ponder that one.

Shane Tripp
Assistant Head of School
Beaches Episcopal School