How many times have you heard a student say “I can’t do it!” or “It’s too hard?” or “I’m not smart enough?”
Unfortunately, there are some students who really struggle with anxiety about their ability to complete learning, homework or other study tasks. We can call this low academic confidence.
Although many students experience a lack of academic confidence at times, statistically it is more likely to be girls who experience it most frequently – and particular girls who are surrounded by “academically high achieving” peers.
Unfortunately when students don’t believe they are capable of learning something or completing a task – then they are less likely to do so, regardless of their actual level of ability. And a chronic lack of confidence and anxiety about learning is associated with higher levels of stress.
I often talk with families who are really struggling with this issue at homework times. For students who feel highly anxious about their ability to understand ideas and complete tasks, homework can be a nightmare. Parents/caregivers have to reassure, cajole, support and mop up tears – and often get really stressed themselves. Some research on homework has indicated that homework time is the most stressful time of the day for families – with one study showing that mothers daily mood ratings are worse on the days when they spend more time around teens/children who are doing homework.
As professionals who work with young people, I think it is important for us to keep supporting children/teens and their families in coping with these high stress homework times – and also increasing academic confidence in students in general.
Here are some ideas I use to do this.
1. Directly ask about academic confidence and also about homework times.
I will frequently ask families (both young people and their parents) how they are coping with homework, how stressful they are find it and how effectively they think they are doing it. For example:
Tell me about what homework time is like in your house?
How worried do you feel about being able to get your homework done on time/get it done correctly?
How worried do you feel about being able to get things done at school – is it different?
How confident are you in your ability to learn and understand ideas generally?
How often is homework a cause of stress/arguments for you and your family?
2. Explicitly teach children and teens to use “break it down steps” to use when they get stuck/confused on a task
As adults, we have many years practice in completing larger or overwhelming projects. We know what it is like to feel stressed in the beginning, start small, persist and experience success. Children and teens often have had much less experience in doing this – and of course their less developed brains mean they can get overwhelmed very quickly.
I find teaching teens/children the skill of breaking big tasks down into smaller steps to be really useful for some kids. There are many ways of doing this, depending on whether I’m working with a 5 year old needing to be encouraged to just identify the first sound in a word, or a 17 year old who needs to break down their Research Project. However, some of the conversation topics might be:
How have you managed big projects in the past? What has worked for you?
Let’s pretend we have to climb a ladder and when we are at the top, the project is done – what is the first rung on the ladder? What is the next? (I’ll often draw this with young people)
Sometimes it can be helpful to keep our “mental eyes” on just one small step. How can you “mentally not look at” the next step?
Let’s look at some ways you can use a timer, to break down a bigger amount of time into smaller amounts of time.
Let’s talk about the strategy of “skipping to the middle” – discussing with kids/teens an easier “out of order” step they can take
Using the strategy of “half doing” steps but more quickly and then going back to them
Using the strategy of “out loud work” – ie how would it work if you just said what had to be done, and then actually doing it later.
3. Discuss principles of brain plasticity and potential for change and growth with students
We know from Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset that young people who believe that cognitive or intellectual ability “grows” (or changes over time) are more likely to do well academically than young people who believe ability is “fixed” (or stays the same).
If as professionals working with young people we can help them understand that their thinking skills are improving and will continue to improve - then they are likely to persist at tasks for longer, feel less stressed when they make mistakes and ultimately do better academically.
To help children understand a growth mindset, I use the following questions/conversation starters/exercises:
What do you think about how much brains grow and change through our lives?
Let me tell you about an experiment a psychologist did (describe research in this area – I find children and teens respond well to information about “scientists and their research”) - a google search using the words “neuroplasticity” or “growth mindset” will result in lots of information).
Over the last X months, which of your learning skills have improved ?….How have you done that?
Let’s look at a video of brain cell growth (there are a couple of these on youtube – these give a visual indicator of how our brains change which often help kids/teens understand the idea that their abilities are improving through life).
Shall we do an exercise where you have to think really hard and see what it is like? (I sometimes get children/teens to do a tough but non academic task – eg solving a block puzzle – and then draw a graph on the board to show the progress across “It’s too hard through to I think I can do it” – and then debrief with them about how they learnt.
4. Teach young people (and their families) principles of multiple intelligences and then help them use these principles when they become demoralised
Over 40 years ago, a psychologist called Howard Gardiner proposed the idea of “multiple intelligences”. Multiple intelligence theory states there are many different “thinking” strengths that different people possess.
This is an important concept for young people to grasp. If students are aware of and notice their unique strengths, they are more likely to have more positive mood and feelings of confidence more often – and in turn, this positive mood and feelings of confidence increases their learning speed in other areas too.
Some of the conversations I have with young people about multiple intelligences are as follows:
What are kinds of thinking skills are you best at?
What are your strengths/favourite subjects/areas you find easier?
Questions/quizzes online to identify strengths (google multiple intelligences for kids to get a list and then ask questions about each of them – eg do you think the parts of your brain which deal with pictures/visual information are better developed than the parts of your brain which deal with words/verbal information? Do you think the parts of your brain which deal with knowing and understanding yourself are better developed than the parts of your brain which deal with nature and the environment?)
Prompt the student, if they can’t identify their own strengths by taking a guess as to particular strengths eg – From what you’ve described, I think you may have a particular skill in……………..compared to other people your age - what do you think?
Once identified strengths – help student think about how they might use it, ie How could you use your particular thinking strengths working on an area which you sometimes have problems with?
5. Talking with children/teens/families about breaks and asking for help from others
Kids/teens who are stressed/overwhelmed by a learning task often continue to work on/think about a task until their stress and anxiety levels are sky high. As we know, this means they will not be able to learn effectively.
I think it’s important to explicitly address the idea of breaks, shifting attention to other tasks and help seeking behaviour.
I have conversations with young people about this by asking questions such as:
Can we talk about how to break up or schedule homework /study time?
Do you have a rule for maximum homework times each day? How long do you think you should do?
I’d like to talk about how to cope when it looks like you are not going to get through what is set for homework – what could we do about that? Let’s make a list of “calm thoughts” or “strategies” to use when you think you simply can’t take a break – but probably should.
Who can you talk to/get help from when you are feeling really stressed/anxious about a learning task?
How can you ask questions/get help in a way which works for you and is constructive?
6. Provide emotional support and empathy
While having these conversations with kids/teens/families, I’m conscious that sometimes what is mostly required is just my empathy and support. Parents/caregivers are often really sad that their children/teens are struggling, and just wish it could be easier for them. Children/teens themselves often feel sad and embarrassed about find work hard. Both parents and kids/teens worry about what their difficulties with study/homework means about the future.
Given the potential for high distress about this topic, I will often “start and finish” conversations with young people with expressions of empathy, including:
Many students feel sad and worried about their learning skills – is this true for you? I’m sorry it’s tough at times.
Is there anything particularly sad or worrying about finding homework/study hard?
What’s the worst part of that?
That sounds hard/I’m sorry it feels that way. Is there anything I can do/we can talk about which might help you feel better about this?
I have written an article especially for parents/caregivers of students who experience lack of confidence and overwhelm during homework times called: “I can’t do it: How to help students when they lack confidence in their ability to do homework”. Please feel free to forward this on to any parents/caregivers you think might benefit.
Also, if you work with primary school aged children in particular and you would like them to learn strategies top persist and cope when they feel stuck or overwhelmed, we have an activity worksheet for students aged 7 to 11 which teaches them about multiple intelligences, growth mindset, the importance of (and strategies for) being persistent – it’s on our Calm Kid Central site – click here to find out more.