The Struggle is Real

written by: Elise Johnson
I often hear students express the sentiment of “the struggle is real.” Some even wear it on their sweatshirts or hashtag it on social media platforms. Rounding corners and coming face-to-face with adolescent changes and sensitivities, varying expectations in the classroom (and at home), complex social situations involving issues of diversity and contradictions to society’s civic responsibilities can leave students feeling overwhelmed. The struggle becomes even more complicated as students embark on a journey toward understanding their learning diversities, as well as figuring out how to advocate for their needs. So, yes, the struggle is most certainly real.

Any path a student takes is going to come with gains and losses, successes and failures. She can only weigh the pros and cons and decide which path is best for her in spite of the inevitable difficulties. It is in these inevitable difficulties where students can discover who they are in the inevitability of human diversity. This is an important lesson because, if there’s an excuse for dodging “the struggle,” students will find it and use it for as long as they can. When I came to Eagle Hill, I was quickly introduced to the concept of learned helplessness, discovered by Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier in the mid-'90s. In simple terms the concept explains that when people (or animals) experience repeated adversity, they are conditioned to think and behave in a way that reinforces helplessness. In other words, they have difficulty seeking out new avenues and strategies to overcome adversity because they have internalized their experiences and believe there is nothing they can do to change the outcomes. I see this played out in the residence halls often, especially when faced with holding students accountable for their behavior and responsibilities. Excuses, whether related to schoolwork or executive functioning skills, may be the result of a learned behavior over time due to repeated failures and a belief that “I can’t do this" or "I will never be good at this.” Psychologist Carol Dweck, pioneer of the growth mindset, speaks to the importance of teaching students the need for having a storehouse of strategies in order to advance their learning. It’s not enough for students to try hard, but they need to take a step back and analyze how they try and evaluate whether any particular approach works for them. As human beings, we are on a journey toward a better understanding of ourselves. That journey will include feelings of anxiousness, frustration, and perhaps even anger, and it should because that means we all have opportunities to learn.

While I certainly strive to be sensitive and understanding of students’ difficulties, I also feel a sense of urgency in helping students break their cycle of helplessness. It is certainly a delicate balance, and the conversations are not always easy. In fact, many of them involve a good amount of tears and growing pains. If students are stuck in this cycle, I often find myself wondering what the student is seeking (e.g., emotional support, control, independence, purpose) or avoiding (e.g., failure, emotional pain, stress). Students may act out in negative ways because they are struggling to have their needs met and don’t know how to express those needs in positive and productive ways. A theorist by the name of William Glasser developed what is known as choice theory, in which he categorizes human needs into five categories: survival, love and belonging, power, fun, and freedom. Humans then either seek to fulfill these needs or avoid pain that ensues as a result of the needs not being fulfilled (2010, p. 326). Similarly, Alfred Adler, father of individual psychology, describes human motive as seeking a sense of “superiority, which includes competence, belonging, and significance” and social interest (2010, p. 105). Rick Lavoie, a well-known author and lecturer in the field of special education (who has spoken at Eagle Hill), discusses student motivation in terms of fulfilling eight different needs: gregariousness, autonomy, status, inquisitiveness, aggression, power, recognition, and affiliation. Clearly, there is overlap, and one is bound to find common threads amongst many theorists and psychologists. The key takeaway is that as educators and parents, there is a need to understand our students’ needs and ask ourselves, “What are they looking for, and how can we help them get it responsibly?”

Open-Ended Questions: An essential component to helping students is encouraging self-awareness. Asking open-ended questions (do not lead to a “yes” or “no” answer) allow for a deeper understanding of the fears and anxieties a student may be feeling as well as space for them to explore what strategies work for them. Avoid using “Why” questions as they may imply a judgement on the part of the authority figure.  

A few examples of open-ended questions:

What is most difficult for you in school?
How do you best relax?
When do you feel anxious?
Where do you feel happy?
Who do you trust?
What can you do to start on this assignment?
How might you resolve this conflict?
When do you focus the best?
Where do you feel stress?
Who inspires you?
What have you learned about yourself from this experience?
How can you prepare for this test?
When will you accomplish this goal?
Where do you like to go to spend time alone?
Who can you go to for help?

Observations: In addition to asking open-ended questions, it can be helpful to make observations about a student’s behavior or emotional state. Observations also increase self-awareness and allow students to reflect. I find this strategy helpful when students are avoiding or rushing through their responsibilities. Also, this is particularly useful when there are discrepancies between what students say and what they do.        
Here are some ways to start observations (and examples):

You seem...
I noticed that...
I see that...
You say that….but...
you’re staying up late
you don’t enjoy cleaning your room
you want to get better seem reluctant to ask for help
you’re on your phone during study hall
math is a difficult subject for you
you don’t have many stay in your room every night
you’re having a hard time keeping track of your stuff
you have a lot going on right now
you’re going to pick up your trash...I have to remind you every day

Positive Reinforcements: An important habit on the part of parents and educators is to maintain a balance between disciplinary consequences and positive reinforcements. This is easier said than done and something I most definitely have to keep in check while working in the residence halls. Sometimes, there are many negative behaviors that need addressing, but there’s always something positive that can be brought to the surface or some measure of progress, however small, that can be recognized. Recognizing strengths and improvements can build stronger rapport, which may lead to more engaging discussions that require directives, enforcement of consequences, and loss of privileges.

Choices: If I’ve learned anything from my time working in education, teenagers strive to be independent and in control of their lives. They appreciate having choices, and honestly, it empowers them. I like providing students with Choice A and Choice B. It’s simple and straightforward, and usually students will choose the path of least resistance. In other words, they’ll evaluate which choice will be easier for them and/or get them what they want. It’s also helpful for students to decide what strategies work best for them.

“You can either finish cleaning your room right after school or during your evening free time.”
“You can either do your homework in the dining hall or the library.”
“You can either finish your last assignment before bed or at breakfast.”

 Similar to providing students choices, it’s also important to collaborate with them on establishing their personal routines and finding ways to fulfill their needs. High school students can be very much “in the now,” seeking instant gratification. Sometimes, it’s necessary to delay that gratification in order for students to understand the importance of holding themselves accountable for their responsibilities.

“(This) seems to be difficult for you. What are your ideas for making (this) better?”
“When do you think would be a good time for you to finish (this)?”
“Now that you’ve done (this), what is your next step?”
“If you do (this)...then you can have…(this).”
“You can do or have (this), but first you need to do (this).”

 Students also benefit from having clear-cut boundaries so they know what is acceptable behavior. Boundaries give students necessary structure and guidance that they ultimately appreciate (even if they don’t always show gratitude). This is especially helpful to prevent engaging in power struggle conversations. Sometimes, I’ve even just politely closed a student’s door and told them to take a few minutes to work out whatever they’re feeling, and I’ll come back later to continue the discussion. Validation of feelings without reinforcing unacceptable behavior is challenging, but key.  

“You can’t do (this), but you can do (this).”
“You were expected to do (this), but you decided to do (this) so (this) is the consequence.”
“It’s okay for you to feel (emotion), but it’s not okay for you to (unacceptable behavior).”
“I can tell you’re feeling (emotion) right now so let’s talk about how to work through this.”

A former supervisor of mine once told me that if a student asked for something, then I should try to find a way to say “yes.” I value this philosophy because it embraces rewarding students for self-advocating and respecting authority. Of course, there are times when the answer has to be “no,” and students typically benefit from hearing why. Learning to accept “no” can be challenging for students, but like any life lesson, one that will prepare them for adulthood.
Breaking the cycle of helplessness and encouraging a growth mindset is no easy task, and students will likely rebel at first because it feels uncomfortable to them. Results don’t typically happen overnight; the process of helping students understand themselves and make good choices is a process, one with necessary bumps in the road and setbacks that require patience and compassion. However, if they are guided in meeting their needs, reinforced for their good habits, given choices and boundaries and opportunities to have a say in how they go about fulfilling their responsibilities, they are better equipped for their journey. 

Fall, Kevin A., Holden, Janice Miner and Marquis, Andre (2010). Theoretical Models of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 2nd edition. New York: Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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