A student raises her hand.
Teachers: What do you do?
Do you run over to help immediately, carefully taking time to walk her through every part of what she’s working on?
Or do you tell her, “No questions – try it yourself first”?
As with most questions, the best and most accurate answer is: it depends.
Teachers want to provide support to students when they’re confused, but they also want to encourage independence so they develop skills to problem solve themselves. How does one do both? First let’s look at the dangers of the extremes—if you only do one or the other:
Only Providing Support
It’s crucial to provide support for students, especially when they are learning new content, or when a particular student is struggling.
So should you run over to help students at the first sign of a question? Not necessarily…
If a teacher provides too much support, students can become reliant on them. They can develop a dependency on your help and not develop the skills to tackle challenging work on their own.
For this reason, you may want to be careful about situations like this:
- If you help students every single time they ask for it – they may never learn to problem-solve
- If you give third, and fourth… and fifth chances when not handing in homework – they may never learn to take responsibility
- If you swoop in at the first sign of disagreement and solve the group’s problem – they may never learn to resolve peer conflicts
To avoid enabling students, teachers shouldn’t solve their every problem in every instance. Sometimes you need to foster independence. Let’s look at this more closely.
Only Encouraging Independence
So we’ve learned it’s crucial to encourage students to be independent. Have we found the answer to the hand-raising problem: just let them figure it out themselves? Not so fast.
If you expect too much independence—and don’t provide support to achieve it—students don’t learn how to become independent. They can flounder in their confusion or frustration, not knowing where to start or what to do next.
So you can’t always expect students to figure our problems on their own. Think twice about things like this:
- If you refuse to answer questions – students won’t know you’re there to help them when they’re genuinely stuck
- If you give directions once and only once – you leave out students who need more time to process, and your directions just may not have been clear in the first place!
- If you expect students to organize everything on their own – they lack models of essay outlines and notebook sections to know what organization can even look like
So we don’t just throw students into the deep end of the pool, as they may flail—and fail—without appropriate support. Let’s now look at a balanced approach.
Balancing Providing Support and Encouraging Independence
There’s a lot of space in between always providing support and only encouraging independence. Teachers have to constantly negotiate the balance between those two options.
Essentially it comes down to:
Providing support, without enabling.
Fostering independence, without abandoning.
So do we rush over to help the student with her hand raised? It depends. On what? The classroom context:
- Consider your content:
- Is what you’re teaching particularly challenging? brand new? dependent on something you taught a ways back?
- Think about the time of year:
- Is it the fall when everything is new? after a vacation when everyone is “off”?
- Survey your students:
- Which of your students benefits from hearing directions twice? from having written directions? from getting a jumpstart before she can get going?
For example, you’ve just taught a lesson that introduces only a slight variation on a skill you’re confident your students know, at a calm time, and you’ve given clear directions, posted on the board, with a graphic organizer for some students who need it – and a kiddo raises his hand and says “I don’t know what to do.”
You may decide to fall around 85-15 encouraging independence: ask him to check around the room and with his peers before he asks you.
By contrast, it’s the start of a new unit, after a three-day weekend, and a student who has slower processing isn’t getting started.
For her, maybe 60-40 provide support? Summarize the lesson, get her started… and be ready to check back and write the steps on a post-it if she needs it.
The need for self-advocacy
The best way to encourage the building of independence is to help students learn how to ask for help. This is self-advocacy, the ability to recognize a challenge and ask for support to address it.
According to the work of self-advocate Zosia Zaks, the Self-advocacy Action Steps are:
- Identify the problem
- Explain how it affects me
- Suggest a possible solution
Teaching self-advocacy directly to students is an example of striking this crucial balance: providing support to help them develop independence.
For more terrific resources about self-advocacy, see Zosia’s Keeping it Real project, courtesy the ASD Nest Support Project.
For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.
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