When Does Helping Hurt?

When does helping a student actually hurt a student?

When does helping a student actually hurt a student? I recently observed a classroom when I noticed a parent accidentally hindering the academic growth of their child. What happened and what can we do to improve?

The facts

 I was participating in a small-group online math class when I noticed a parent attempting to help their child solve a math problem. I heard the student ask the parent (who was off camera) for help. The parent responded with the following….”you need to multiply the numerator by the denominator and that gives you the answer of 24. Does this make sense to you?” The student responded with “yes”. That was the end of the dialog.

 What happened?

 The parent helped the student solve the problem but there was no evidence the child mastered the skill necessary to independently complete the task in the future. The student said “yes” but it was not clear if the child was confirming they knew how to solve the problem or if they were deflecting unwanted attention or required effort.

When does yes mean no?

Sometimes students say “yes” in order to avoid having to admit they don’t understand. They may be embarrassed they still have questions, which they internally translate into feeling “stupid”. Other students are in a rush to complete the task or not interested in the topic. In other words, a simple “yes” doesn’t help us confirm the child knows what to do.

What is another way to handle this situation?

When a child asks for help with a question, we always ask them to..

  1. Activate prior knowledge. Tell us what they already know about the problem. We ask them to explain what the problem is requiring them to do and what they know about other problems similar to the one they are currently working on.
  2. Identify a strategy. We then prompt the student to predict how they might tackle the problem and guide them with open ended questions when necessary.
  3. Chunk it out - We help the student break down the problem into small chunks when additional assistance is needed.
  4. Verify accuracy - Once they have completed the problem, I ask them to identify how they will check their own work. Is the answer they gave reasonable? Students can answer this question even if they don’t know the right answer. We do this despite the fact we know the child answered the problem correctly because error checking is an important concept to master.
  5. Metacognition...thinking about your thinking - Finally, once they have completed the task, we identify and label the steps the child took to solve the problem and remind them they should feel proud of their effort.

The last step is very important. Students need help understanding how to solve problems and they need to be reminded they have the ability to do this independently. This is a core component of the instructional focus for Dana Middle School. Our goal is to support students with being successful the day after they finish high school.

Helping students problem solve

Students who need additional support should be coached with identifying how they will obtain it. Help students identify others who can help them. This could be a peer, a counselor, a teacher, a relative, etc. The important issue here is requiring the student to answer the question. Ask the child where they think they can go for help then support their choice assuming it is logical. Simply telling them where to find help only promotes dependency.

Next Steps

Interested in learning more about the work we engage in around developing independent thinkers? Please take a moment to review the following resources:

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