Straightforward Tips from a 7th Grade Teacher Who Has Watched Her Students Growing Passive & Anxious These Past Few Years

“Students don’t even open the classroom door when someone knocks. They look around for someone else to do it.”

As a seventh grade teacher for over 25 years, I have witnessed a significant decrease in students’ ability to learn and become self-reliant.   

The most successful students are independent thinkers, problem solvers, communicators — and they’re intrinsically motivated. Many of these skills are first learned at home…when parents are ready to expect and encourage some independence. Rushing in to help does kids no favors.

Recently, though, it seems to have become harder for parents to watch their kids struggle. Some frustration is inevitable as kids develop perseverance and problem solving. There is a fine line between “helping” frustrated kids and “overhelping” and thereby undermining them. We’ll take a look at how to tread that line, below.

But first, let me put in a good word for The Let Grow Project, which I consider a great solution for raising self-sufficient, self-advocating children. It provides “baby steps” for both parents and kids to develop independence. Here’s my piece on how I also found it an antidote for student anxiety. (And here’s a 2-minute video!)

As a teacher and mother, it actually saddens me how many children are passive and anxious thanks to overparenting and learned helplessness. Here is how doing too much for our children can actually backfire – and how to let kids start doing more:

Students have limited ability to “Think Outside The Box”  

In the classroom, my fellow teachers and I are seeing more and more students who truly don’t know what to do in simple situations such as forgetting supplies, not having a charged Chromebook, or missing notes due to an absence. We watch them give up rather than try to figure out a solution.  Many students do not look at directions and often get an entire task incorrect.

I am actually beginning to see a pattern when someone knocks on the classroom door. Students are staying in their seats looking around the room for someone else to open it. They’re also not picking up after themselves in class or the cafeteria. I worry that having so much done for them has conditioned them to seek others (or technology) to complete these basic tasks.

When it comes to their academics, it’s a parallel situation: Many students are having a hard time moving beyond “rote regurgitation.” For example, when teachers provide their students with a review that is an almost exact replica of the actual test, the students will still often comment, “But we never learned this!”—because the questions are in a different order, or worded differently. 

SOLUTION: When you and your child are watching TV, or out and about, ask them, “What may this mean?” or “What do you think the solution could be?”  This provides great practice for problem solving and being able to see things in different ways.

Students are unable to prioritize, plan and meet deadlines.

Many of our students are coming from structured and supervised lifestyles, so they have not developed the basic skills of prioritization, planning and meeting deadlines. But as students move through middle to high school there will be a variety of assignments and tests that must be planned for, in order to meet deadlines. Learning this life skill early on can only help. Losing 5 points on a late homework prepares for late fees on overdue bills later in life.

SOLUTION: Small, independent tasks at home, early on, allow students to plan — and to learn the consequences of procrastination. Provide a task to be done at home with a time-frame. Example: Cleaning one’s room or folding laundry. Let them see the natural consequences of NOT completing these tasks.

Students have difficulty organizing their day and their things.

When everything, including a child’s schedule, has been organized for them, they get accustomed to having someone tell them what to do and when to do it.  This hinders the ability to become organized.

SOLUTION: Encourage your child to get organized the night before. Make a list together of all of the required items and then let your child get them ready. Have them help prepare their lunch and choose their clothes the night before.

AND if they forget something, please don’t rush to school to bring it to them. When you do, they learn you will always be there to make it right.

Students are having a difficult time resolving normal playground squabbles

Teachers and administrators are getting frequent phone calls regarding conflict between the students. In many cases, the students have actually resolved the conflict on their own, yet the parents are still getting involved!

From a young age, students need to practice getting along, starting with something as simple as what to do when, “He stole my blocks!” If parents are constantly intervening, children don’t learn how to resolve issues on their own. Learning to deal with small conflicts prepares them for conflicts they will have as teens and beyond.  (It also helps them to understand that they don’t have to like every teacher, coach, person etc. – but they DO need to manage being with these people.)

SOLUTION: Discuss the conflict with your child and come up with creative solutions together. Look at the situation from both perspectives and help them to arrive at a conclusion and resolve on their own before stepping in.

Students have limited ability to communicate and self-advocate with their teachers.

Every day, teachers receive an inordinate number of emails from parents for simple questions that their child could have easily asked us. Not only does this eliminate necessary communication practice, it very often leads to misunderstandings.

When a parent emails a teacher it prolongs an issue that could have been quickly resolved. I recently received an email from a parent regarding an assignment that their child had completed last month. As a result of this delay, quarter grades had to be recalculated and adjusted. This could have been avoided had the student simply informed me when they completed the missed assignment.

SOLUTION: Encourage your child to approach their teacher with questions or concerns. Giving them the responsibility for self-advocating helps them learn to communicate, and frees them from always relying on someone else to complete a task they are capable of. 

Students have a hard time learning from and coping with disappointment and failure.

Often a student will do poorly on an assignment or test and parents storm the teacher demanding a “re-take” or extra credit.

Grades that were not earned by a child prevent them from understanding what it feels like to have a sense of accomplishment. By allowing our children to do their own work, and sometimes struggle a bit, we are helping them to develop a much-needed work ethic, and authentic pride. Demanding better grades teaches a child that you can fix everything, when in reality, that is not possible. 

Research has also shown that students learn better from making mistakes than never being allowed to make them at all. If your child receives a grade that they are unhappy with, hold them accountable but also remind them that we all make mistakes and can learn from them. Discussing what they could do differently in the future will help them not make the same mistake again, and also not become so anxious when, inevitably, they do make some mistakes. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Resilience can help protect you from various mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Resilience can also help offset factors that increase the risk of mental health conditions, such as being bullied or previous trauma.”  

SOLUTION: Let kids learn from the mistake of handing in an assignment late in middle school. This will help them avoid this in the future IF they are allowed to experience the real consequences. Speak with your child about the value of working hard to achieve something. 

Students lack the attention needed to focus on meaningful lessons…beyond the PowerPoint.

When everything is planned and structured, students don’t learn how to focus on anything beyond the so-called “main concept” – which they memorize.  Many of my students have told me they are able to memorize content, but not “learn” anything beyond the Powerpoint.       

SOLUTION: Doing independent tasks from a young age teaches children to figure things out on their own – in other words, how to think. The Let Grow Project is a great place to find age-appropriate tasks to get your child started on this path. Small chores and time on their own, preferably outside of the home, build self-reliance in children.

Persevering through challenging tasks

Giving into every whim deprives a child the opportunity to develop patience and perseverance.  Rather than jumping in to give your child the answer to a difficult homework problem, let them try to figure it out. Many parents try to prevent their child from feeling frustrated or disappointed, and rush to help them. The child may receive a high grade on the assignment but the only thing they learned is that if I can’t do a task, someone else will do it for me.

SOLUTION: Having your child complete independent tasks helps them to push through challenges and feel a sense of accomplishment, motivating them to attempt harder ones in the future.

Students are lacking motivation

Intrinsic motivation is lacking in many students because they have never felt the actual pleasure of overcoming a struggle. Getting grades without working for them, or making a team because of a parent phone call, reinforces an unhealthy work ethic. As a result, students practice “task-avoidance” to circumvent doing what is required (and possibly fail).

SOLUTION: Encourage your child to work hard for the things they desire and praise them for their perseverance.   This will foster and build meaningful motivation.

All parents want what is best for their child. But sometimes, allowing our kids to become independent scares us as much as it scares them.  We may fear that “growing up” means they  will no longer need us. 

In turn, children feel defeated because they want their parents to trust that they are capable human beings. As difficult as it may be, helping your child to develop independence skills is the best gift you can give them to ensure success in every area of their lives. Instead of being scared, be proud of your child. They may not always be dependent on us, but we’ll always have a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence. We are not letting them “go.”  We are letting them “grow.” — Jodi Maurici