Asking for help is a soft-skill seldom given the credit it deserves. As we get older, we recognize the value in knowing what we cannot do on our own and having friends and family who can help us do those things. Our more youthful family members need time to figure this out, if not also a little encouragement. Whether your student is too proud or too shy to ask for help, it’s important they get the support they need. So, how do we help our student, when they can’t ask? Harder yet, how do we assist our student when they refuse assistance? In order to help them, it might be advantageous to know why your student isn’t articulating their needs.
Obstacle #1: Students don’t ask for help soon enough
Believe it or not, recognizing that you don’t understand something is a skill that comes with age. Oftentimes, students feel as though they understand the content in their math class because they can regurgitate their teacher’s work, or they can remember having seen something, and have checked that box off in their head. However, students, like ourselves, can fail to recognize the depth of what they don’t know. This overestimation of one’s abilities is common, and can lead to headache on exams and assignments.
Of the suggestions made by Carnegie Mellon University for overcoming these problems, two stick out to me. The first, explain to your student that learning is not a zero-sum game. Understanding is on a spectrum, and knowledge of a particular topic may be only a small part of what they ought to understand. The second, having your student do “corrections,” on their exams or homework assignments. If a student is struggling to recognize they need help, they may write off underperformance on tests or homework as a “fluke,” which may present itself as “the exam was just way too hard” or “I was tired that day.” However, if your student has the opportunity to look over their mistakes, and more importantly reflect on them, they may recognize that deficiency in their understanding.
Obstacle #2: A student’s personality can make asking for help hard
Some students will naturally have a harder time asking for help, and it’s part of their personality. Surprisingly, these students have probably excelled in school in some way or another. Students who are accustomed to naturally performing well in school struggle to ask for help, as it’s new territory and can even feel like weakness. Ultimately, it’s important that the ability to ask for help is learned, because at some point, we all need a little assistance.
Vulnerability is your best friend in this situation. Asking for help feels like losing a battle for many students, so making the strength and value in asking for help to your student clear is a good first step. Sharing an experience where you’ve asked for help, or other adults your child admires can go a long way. It’s important for students to see people they trust ask for help, if they’re to become comfortable seeking help. If that doesn’t work, try figuring out who your student is most willing to receive help from. Perhaps your student feels most comfortable asking their teacher, tutor, or sibling, then it could be worthwhile to ask this person what they’ve found effective in aiding your student. Learning centers like Tip-Top Brain, make it a point to observe a student’s learning styles, as well as their personal strengths and weaknesses, and so communicating with your student’s instructor can give you secret weapons when encouraging learning at home.
Obstacle #3: Students might not want to ask you for help
It may be hard to swallow, but sometimes your student won’t approach you because you’re simply unapproachable. Never fear, this may not be any fault of your own. Students can be dissuaded from asking for help if they fear judgement, punishment, or fail to see the value in asking.
Take note of your response when a student is struggling. Kids don’t have the same language adults do to explain their feelings nor confusion. We’ve all more or less written off a student’s confusion by telling them to try to “study more,” or “stick to it.” Unfortunately, if the student was grasping for a life-line, they didn’t get it, and they may not ask again. Instead of giving some off the cuff line, try and dig deeper into your student’s concern. What tools have they already tried to consult (e.g. their notes, a friend) and suggest any others they may not have used yet. Further, follow through until your student feels heard, and has gotten help. When students try to get assistance, and it never comes, they can feel trapped and discouraged.
All in all, asking for help can be challenging. No matter your age, there’s vulnerability in saying “I can’t do this on my own,” but even being able to utter those fears is a step in the right direction. If we listen carefully to our students, and meet them where they are, we can figure out why they’re averse to seeking out help. Once your student is comfortable asking you for help, how will you react? Your student has entrusted you with their confusion, and it’s a trust we need to foster.