Are You Helping or Hurting Your Students?

What’s wrong with these kids? Do they really think we’ll hold their hand? This isn’t elementary school!

I treat mine all the same. And you know what? It’s sink or swim. How are they going to make it in high school if we do everything for them?

We have all heard these comments from middle school teachers who should be helping young adolescents through these transition years. But how do you know when providing assistance is helping students and when it is actually hurting them?

Helping is providing support, having high expectations, and insisting on high standards. “You will do this, I will show you how, and you will do it to the level of the standard.” Helping is not doing the work for the student. It is not excusing the student, nor is it ignoring the student’s problems.

Learning is not always easy or fun; as they say in sports: no pain, no gain. However, expecting students to do the work with minimal or no support hurts them, and eventually can cripple them.

I worked with a football coach who did not understand this concept. He pushed his players for 6–7 hours a day. By the time the Friday night game came around, many of the boys were injured and exhausted and could not play to near their potential. His coaching (teaching) was unfocused, did not build the important skills, and provided little understanding of planning or strategy. It was all about insistence with very little support.

When Is Helping Beneficial?

How much help is beneficial, and at what point does it become damaging? Consider these points:

Learning happens in the context of relationships to people, ideas, and interests.

Learning is social and happens in the context of a relationship to a person, idea, talent, or interest. It’s important to note that “rules without relationships breed rebellion,” as Grant East of Can Academies tells us. Yale University professor James Comer suggests that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

Learning occurs in context. One of the big misunderstandings in education pedagogy is that task completion is generic—that if students know how to complete one task, they can complete any task.

Actually, learning is closely tied to context. For example, a student may know the general steps for solving a problem, but if the concept is new, she may not know which steps are appropriate. She needs a teacher who is knowledgeable about the specific task or content and who can teach her what she needs to know. Asking a history teacher to show her how to repair an engine would not be helpful.

Learning requires support. A student will acquire new knowledge more quickly if the following steps are in place: 1) Watch the teacher present and complete an example of the task. 2) Work with a peer to complete a similar example. 3) Do the next example alone, but with the teacher in the room. 4) Do the assignment alone.

With new learning, the teacher must manage “irrelevant cognitive load.” In her 2008 book, Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, Ruth Colvin Clark states, “The more novice the learners and the more complex the new knowledge and skills, the more important load management becomes.”

For information to remain in long-term memory, it must go through working (short-term) memory first. The features of working memory, according to Clark, include

  • Center of conscious cognition.
  • Limited capacity.
  • Brief duration of new content.
  • Separate areas for processing and storage of auditory and visual data.

When working memory gets overloaded, it slows processing tremendously. If processing is blocked, within about 12 seconds, “even small amounts of new information are lost if they are not rehearsed,” according to Clark.

Clark suggests that when students take notes on unfamiliar content, their attention is split, which reduces their learning. The effort of taking notes detracts from the mental capacity that could be devoted to processing the content. She suggests that students use teacher-prepared notes to promote learning.

So working memory must be closely monitored. No more than four new items should be presented at once and no more than two modalities at once (visual and auditory or kinesthetic). Otherwise, the brain is overloaded and it retains almost nothing.

To learn anything, you have to know why, what, and how. In fact, Clark states that if students don’t know why the learning is important, their actual achievement is significantly reduced.

What About Failure?

What about letting students fail? Research indicates that failure can promote long-term success if the student has supportive adults and options to try again. We can damage students when we don’t allow them to fail, when we do everything for them or imply that they are unable (or not expected) to do the work themselves. True success comes from discipline and persistence, even in the face of obstacles and failure.

All learning should have links to multiple opportunities. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 times to make a light bulb before he actually succeeded. He famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Basketball great Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” He also said, “I can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

Recognizing Differences

When my son was a sophomore in high school, he came home one day and said, “Mom, some of my friends are taking anti-depressants. But in my opinion, if they think positive, they’ll be fine.” I said to him, “Tom, you wear glasses. When you go to school tomorrow, leave your glasses at home. In my opinion, if you squint and think you can see, you will be able to see.” He looked at me and said, “OK, I get it.”

The bottom line is that not all people are alike, and we cannot treat every student the same. Not everyone needs glasses. And some do need anti-depressants.

Researchers have found that a particular genetic marker determines how much you are affected by your external environment. Some people are “dandelions” and can thrive in any environment; some are “orchids” and must be nurtured so they can thrive. And so it is with students.

Ask these questions as you think about ways you can help—or hinder—a student’s success:

  1. Has the student had the opportunity to work through the assignment in a way that sequentially and systematically reinforces the new learning? (The teacher does it. I do it with a friend. I do it by myself with the teacher present. I do it by myself.)
  2. Did I, as the teacher, provide the what (language), the how (the process and planning tools), and the why (meaning and importance of the work)? Research shows that if the why is not provided, very little learning occurs.
  3. Am I doing something that the student can do for himself? If so, am I hindering, not encouraging, his success?

Support, Insistence, and High Expectations

In the school business, we often give one chance and very little support. Or we give lots of chances and lots of support but very little insistence or high expectations. Neither leads to student success.

Rather, we need to provide a synergistic combination of support, insistence, and high expectations.

Ruby K. Payne, is a career educator, author, and founder of aha! Process, Inc. ( Her most recent book is Achievement for All: Keys to Educating Middle Grades Students in Poverty, available from

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, February 2014.