What do you say to a student who moans, “I’ll never learn this; I never get anything right”? First, know what not to say.
- “You’re being silly. Anyone can learn this.” Child’s reaction: No one else is having any trouble. That just proves how stupid I am.
- “You just need to try harder.” Child’s reaction: I’m already trying as hard as I can. Now my teacher will think I’m being lazy.
- (Quick demonstration followed by) “See, that’s how you do it.” (No further word on the subject.) Child’s reaction: I knew I wouldn’t understand even if someone showed me how.
Trying to reason a child out of discouragement is an exercise in futility. Not only that: if you keep trying and getting nowhere, you’re likely to end up discouraged yourself.
What You Can Do
With most children, occasional discouragement is nothing to worry about. You can minimize its effect in your classes by following these basic principles:
- Get to know your students as individuals. Get a feel for who learns slowly but memorizes well; who’s a whiz at mathematics; who’s a born introvert. Make space for everyone’s natural abilities and personality traits.
- Show respect for your students. Let them volunteer their ideas freely. Avoid interrupting or talking down to anyone. Never compare anyone unfavorably to others, and avoid such phrases as “slow learner” even in general references.
- Put a quick stop to any bullying. Watch out, too, for subtle forms that may not involve deliberate malice. What’s good-natured teasing to one child may cut another to the heart, and thoughtlessly being ignored may be interpreted as intentional snubbing.
- Talk about your own mistakes and struggles. “Nobody’s perfect” means little in itself; but true-life examples of imperfection—especially in people a child respects—brings reality to the concept that one can “fail” without being a “failure.”
- Make time for activity and rest breaks. Emotional discouragement is often linked to poor physical condition. Give your students opportunities to practice overall healthy habits, and they’ll be overall less prone to discouragement.
If you have a student who seems tormented by chronic self-esteem deficiency, you can also:
- Encourage them with specific ideas for exercising their natural abilities in class. But do this subtly, or other students may resent their classmate as a “teacher’s pet.”
- Recommend reading or a project on specific issues that trouble the student. Whether they feel like outcasts because their interests and background differ from those of their classmates, or whether they have difficulties with one school subject and wish they were “smarter,” you can find ways to introduce projects that appeal to their passions—with examples of others “like them” who overcame obstacles.
Consider whether there may be a deeper problem involved. A chronically discouraged student may have an undiagnosed physical or mental health problem, or may come from a dysfunctional household. If you find this to be the case, recommend that the family (or the proper authorities if need be) talk to a doctor or social service. Even if the problem situation doesn’t change, nothing encourages like actions that say, “Somebody does care.”
Blessings to parents and children of all ages!