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Why We Should Let Students Struggle

By Guest Blogger Loren Baron

Loren Baron is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme coordinator at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C. He's served as president of IB Schools of North Carolina for the past three years, while teaching IB workshops and consulting for IB programs from Shanghai, China, to Wilmington, N.C. Loren will be writing about the trade-offs of running an open-access diploma program, why it's a mistake to bail out struggling students, and how parents and teachers can unintentionally enable students' damaging chase for perfection.

I work hard to recruit students to join our IB Diploma Programme, a particularly demanding academic course of study. I talk to them and their parents about the workload and the challenging content.  We specifically discuss the value of the programme beyond the college-level content, the increased weighted GPA, and the enhanced transcript. During the conversation, the parents understand.  They offer the affirming nod as we discuss student growth and the immeasurables that come from struggle. They are excited by the prospect of their students' success in the programme and the benefits they will accrue. But when the inevitable student struggle begins, the attitudes sometimes change, and the resulting behaviors are not always in the best interest of the student.

Students struggle for the reasons we expect. The work is difficult, and there is a lot of it. The classes are difficult, and there are several of them. After the initial honeymoon period of the first few weeks of classes, reality sets in. The material gets harder, the homework more consistent, and the stress starts to build. But students also struggle because they are unorganized and glued to their phones, because they procrastinate and make poor choices about how to use their time, and because they think an assignment given a month before the due date can be started in about 28 days.  Students struggle because they are in an academic environment that demands their attention in a way they are simply not accustomed to. This is not a judgment on their character.  It is the reality of where they are in their lives at this time. 

I have seen students handle these unfamiliar, yet clearly articulated challenges, in a variety of ways. Most start the process of adjusting their habits to better manage the tasks. Some complain while doing so, and others handle the demands while maintaining remarkably cheerful dispositions. Some students will spend more time during lunch or after school with their teachers getting additional help. Others are not as gracious or do not react as productively. They complain to their parents and their peers about the crushing amount of work. When their grades slip, they talk about the ineffectiveness of the teacher or their unreasonable demands. Some start skipping certain classes or missing school altogether to avoid the stress.  

It is hard watching our kids struggle. We worry about the fatigue and the mood swings, about our students' emotional health and the epidemic that is student anxiety. For a variety of legitimate reasons, there is an urge to bail our students out. I get that. Parenting is a particularly inexact science, and the opportunity to second guess our decisions about what is best for our children is a day to day reality. The last thing I would encourage a parent to do is to stay out of the way, to leave their students to their own devices, and to let them fail if that is the lesson awaiting them. I expect parents to support their students. I encourage them to ask about their progress and occasionally check their grades and to make sure their kids are eating well, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep. 

But there is another set of reactions that startle and concern me. Rather than support the students as they work to resolve their problems, parents seek to eliminate the problems themselves. They respond to their students' plea by picking them up from school or let them stay home altogether because they are too stressed to attend. When they see a grade fall, they will immediately hire a tutor to fix the problem before the student has been to their own teacher's tutoring sessions. Sometimes parents will email me about a teacher they have never met or communicated with, to complain that their student, along with much of the class, is struggling due to the teacher's ineffectiveness. In some of the more extreme cases, parents have withdrawn their students from the school because they could not drop the programme midyear. Then they enroll them in what they feel is a more "accommodating" school.

It is easy to get frustrated by these reactions and their ramifications for our classes or our Diploma Programme. But mostly I am concerned for the students. I get that they are happy to have an advocate, somebody who will always take their side and fight for them. But we are working with students who are preparing for college. They are looking forward to the freedom coming their way, but are not being given the opportunity to prepare for the responsibilities. This is where they learn how to manage large numbers of demanding and coinciding tasks and how to address the inevitability of stress in a healthy and productive way. These increased demands are the impetus for learning time management and organization and for understanding the costs of procrastination and other choices they make. Instead of learning these critical lessons, students are being taught to await the bailout.

There is much more to college readiness than math and reading scores, and even the ability to think critically. Our programme touts the skills we teach about student advocacy and the value of self-reflection, the value of problem-solving and the ability to adapt to different and demanding environments. We want more for our students than just getting into "the college of their dreams." We want them to be ready when they get there, to thrive, to feel comfortable taking academic risks, and to seek opportunities beyond the required courses. As one of my former students recalled in his exit survey, the demands he faced in our programme "showed me that my capabilities are only limited by the degree to which I am willing to improve." We have to give them the room to do so. We want them to have a sense of what they are truly capable of. But that lesson is learned, and earned, from the students' own experiences. That is why we must allow them to struggle.

Loren Baron

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