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Teaching While Parenting: Facing Struggle

by Kristine Mraz

Heinemann Publishing
Aug 1, 2018 · 13 min read

I am watching my baby learn to walk.

All the same age (and younger!) babies I know are walking.

Is he struggling?

The fact he might be makes me anxious.

Should I have taken him to that movement class on Saturdays? Why are all those other babies walking? What did their caregivers do? Was there something I should have done? Is there something I should do now? Is it because he is in daycare? There is a lot to unpack in this guilt and anxiety: societal norms, my own experience as a child, my feelings about struggle and identity, and what it means to be the best parent for my child.

struggle v. STRUGGLE

Before I go much further, I want to pause to address something about the idea of struggle. There is struggle, and then there is STRUGGLE. This post is about lowercase “s” struggles. Learning at a different pace than your peers, struggling to grasp new concepts, not meeting benchmarks that the standards say I should meet, struggling to use my words instead of my hands. Kid-sized struggle.

This is not about STRUGGLE, wherein societal norms are stacked against students and families of color. The suggestions I make herein will not dismantle a system built over generations, and I want to be clear that it is my responsibility as a white educator to seek out and continually work towards the extinction of racism in our institutions and interpersonal relationships. It is also on white educators to make sure we do not confuse struggle with Struggle. That is to say, we do not abandon children of color under the guise that struggle is good, when really what they are encountering is racism masquerading as curriculum and discipline. (For more on this, I would direct you to Shana White, Dr. Kim Parker, Jose Vilson, Ebony Elizabeth, Debbie Reese, Tricia Erbavia, Laura Jimenez, Eve Ewing, Aeriale Johnson, Cornelius Minor and others that talk about this work in much more sophisticated ways). This is where the grit conversation went off the rails, when we started saying kids needed grit, when what we really needed to do was rethink the quality of our teaching and our schools.

I am speaking directly to educators here, but if you are a parent, these might be questions worth asking as well. Before we start talking about a child struggling, we first have to confront some hard questions:

  • Could this issue be a result of materials, curriculum, environment, or style of delivery? If yes, address those before calling it “struggle”.
  • Is this issue affecting a group of children disproportionately? e.g. Are only the boys sitting at recess? Are only children of color being brought to the student support team? What does that tell us about the school culture or environment?
  • What is my relationship with this child? Could this be impacting the child’s school experience?

If we are certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have answered and reflected on these questions honestly, and addressed all that we can to ensure equal access to learning, it is time to start tackling the kid sized struggles.

Parenting for the Long Term: Struggle, The Good-Enough Mother, and Capability

Somehow, somewhere, I developed a belief that I knew I was doing okay as a caregiver if my kid was floating effortlessly through life. We all know that person who always has baby wipes and a backup snack and has never heard the electrifying screech of an overtired baby. But it turns out, the best caregivers are really just “good-enough”. This idea, developed by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, says that the perfect parent is the one that is flawed.

The term “Good-Enough Mother” highlights the importance of disappointment and protest as critical developmental experiences for babies. Minor “failures” –for example, not getting milk to the baby the instant he feels hungry- help the baby to gradually understand that the caregiver is someone to whom he must communicate need…When mommy responds to the crying by feeding him, he proudly discovers his sense of agency, his power to have an impact on his world. — Jill Leibowitz, PsyD in Psychology Today

The very things we carry guilt about (“I wasn’t there!” “I didn’t see this coming!” “I should have been helping with them reading all along.”) are the very things that babies and children need to develop a healthy identity- a chance to struggle, and to discover their own potential.

Feeling guilty means I might try to prevent struggle (here, let me feed you, here, let me help you up that step, here, let me put that jacket on for you) and over time the actions I take to manage MY feelings (guilt, fear of struggle, our frustration with how long it takes, desire to avoid a meltdown) can impact a child’s ability to self advocate and feel competent and capable. I KNOW this, and yet, here I go, trying to minimize my own child’s struggle. It is possibly the hardest battle I fight between the teacher side of me (let him try!) and the parent side of me (protect his heart and feelings of worth at all costs!!) As a teacher, when I have to communicate to a parent that a child is struggling, I want to make sure that I am clear that to be human, is to struggle, and that struggle is not about a child and their long term prospects. Yet as a parent, I hear it as something much worse.

Confronting Struggle

When you hear your child is struggling at something in school it is easy to lose sight of logic. To help, there are a few things to ask yourself:

  1. What is my own experience with struggle? How is that impacting my reaction?
  2. What does this make me think about my child? Can I separate the struggle from my identity as a parent? From my child’s identity?
  3. Is it productive struggle or insurmountable struggle? Can I shift an insurmountable struggle to a productive one? (More about that in a minute)

As a parent, all I can think about is the downsides of struggle. As a teacher, all I think about is the benefits. So let’s talk about struggle then, shall we?

Facing Our Feelings and Fears First

Struggle, from a logical perspective, is inherently neutral. Where it gets sticky is when we have opinions about what struggle means about a person’s identity. This is when a habit of self-examination comes in handy as a parent. My child is going to learn how to feel about struggle by watching how I respond to his struggles. How do I feel about struggle? As a human being I often feel ashamed when I struggle, I fall into a cycle of feeling like a failure and then being ashamed I can’t do the thing I am trying to do. With that as my own baggage around struggle, I intervene in my own child’s struggles in an effort to spare him the self-loathing loop. A loop that does not exist to him yet, until I teach it to him, by my actions. It is a bit of an infinity loop of bad habits.

Jumping in to “save” our child might also happen because we worry that they will feel sad or frustrated. But this is complicated on two fronts. Those are our feelings not our child’s, and it suggests that those feelings are “bad” feelings, as opposed to part of the spectrum of emotions every healthy person feels. It is not about avoiding struggle and bad feelings, it is about finding productive struggle and ways through the feelings.

Struggle Part 1: The Productive Kind

Struggle, when productive, is a good thing. An essential thing, a necessary thing. Think back to your child learning to self-feed. Every misfire that landed yogurt in their nose, ear, or eye provided essential neurological feedback (“Nope, still hungry, not the mouth”) And when that spoon ended up in your child’s mouth, their brain was on fire with activity to make sure that happened again. It’s like navigating a maze. The wrong turns help you narrow down the right ones. When your child struggles, emphasize to yourself, and to your child, all the good outcomes of that! Tell them the story of how hard it was to learn to walk, and it took so many tries, and so many falls, and so much bravery, but they learned. By figuring out what does not help with walking, you figure out what does. The same is true with reading, writing, math, and making friends. Your brain has to make some varied attempts before it finds the one that works.

More importantly, with each thing I learn to do, I associate a positive relationship between effort and outcome. I learn something more than how to read. I learn that I am capable, and with help and practice and resilience I can continue to grow and learn. I develop a growth mindset. Facing struggle in school empowers me to face later challenges in life. I do not try to avoid mistakes, I try to learn from my mistakes.

For the record, I am pro-struggle as a teacher, but I am not at all advocating that we abandon children to the wilderness with a bone knife and a compass, literally or metaphorically. Struggle needs to be “just-right” to ensure this kind of mental resilience.

Struggle Part 2: The Insurmountable Kind

Teachers talk a lot about “just-right” and “zone of proximal development”, but what does that really mean? Let’s stick with walking for a minute here. There are a continuum of skills that most children progress through that ends in walking. Some of the early, essential elements don’t even seem like they have anything to do with walking. The ability to hold up one’s head in tummy time is a very early skill on the continuum of learning to walk, so is sticking your butt up in the air and looking at the world upside down. Standing independently is one marker much closer to the end goal of walking.

One tricky aspect in teaching is that the ends of skills don’t always look like the beginnings. The best way to support a child is to provide experiences and reasons for them to try the thing that is just a little bit too hard, but is headed in the right direction. For your little one in tummy time, it might be putting that apple mirror on the floor so they stay up just a little bit longer. For your wee one starting to stand, it might be putting some toys up higher on some sturdy furniture so that they pull themselves up to play with them. And even though what we are working towards, ultimately, is walking, it does not speed up the process to take your three month old, engage the assistance of two more adults, and simulate walking with your baby- one person on arms, another on legs, another holding up that melon on top. Likewise, the first step towards symbolic thought for kids (knowing that rain represents a cleansing in sophisticated novels) is to pretend a block is a train. It is not immediately obvious that to help kids become metaphorical thinkers we need to make sure they have time with blocks, not analyzing the symbolism of clouds in “Where is Spot?”

The insurmountable kind of struggle is when what we are trying to do is so outside the realm of what we can do independently that we can only complete it when someone does it for us. It may make us feel incompetent because no matter how hard we try we never see any progress.

In my experience as a teacher most kids do not naturally put themselves in insurmountable struggles when they are young. They are good assessors of their skill levels on both the playground and in math. Often if a child is trying it and struggling, and trying again, they are ready for whatever it is.

Teachers and parents sometimes inadvertently put kids into this type of struggle. Our intentions might be good, but we’ve misjudged the next step. Or we may have set kids up to be in this kind of struggle by praising an end product (did you read that chapter book? You are such a good reader!) as opposed to the actions that get kids there (did you just use the picture to figure out the tricky word! Look at you go!), maybe sometimes praising the ease at which something is done, as opposed to the work it took to get there.

Back to the Moment of Truth: “Your child is struggling in_______”

Okay, so you have learned your child is struggling in (fill in the blank). The first thing we want to remind ourselves is that struggle is neutral. Struggle is where learning happens. An absence of struggle can mean an absence of learning. All human beings struggle. Struggle is not our enemy. The better question is whether or not the struggle is productive.

How Do I Know if the Struggle is Productive?

Try asking yourself or your child’s teacher the following questions:

  • Do I see growth in my child, even if it is small and slow? Growth is a good indicator that your child is learning from their struggle.
  • Is my child able to see struggle as separate from identity? If a child says, “I am a bad reader” that is a sign they have internalized this struggle as something about their core humanity. A child who can say, “I am learning to read, sometimes it feels hard.” understands that struggle is separate from being a good or bad human.
  • Does your child demonstrate resilience or tenacity independently or with a little boost? A child who gets back at the hard thing (riding the skateboard, solving the math problem, reading the book) even after a little meltdown is one who is poised to learn from mistakes- just like they did when they were learning to eat.
  • What are the smaller parts of the thing? Your child might be struggling with multiplication, but what part? What are the smaller steps that lead up to the skill, where is the next “just right” challenge? Your child did not learn to speak in sentences overnight, it was a process that began at birth and is still changing to this very day. Responding to struggle with patience and optimism is the best starting point. ***

*** OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR*** I wrote that line with my teacher brain dominating, then remembered my own child’s unique trajectory in meeting language milestones and my related panicked google searches, calls with doctors, and general lack of patience and optimism. So, you know, its okay to worry, just don’t mistake your worry with reality.

So, Parents, What Do We Say to…

Our Struggling Child

  • Mistakes are how your brain grows.
  • You’ve learned to do hard things before, you can learn to do this.
  • Who can you ask for more help?
  • How can I help you?
  • It’s okay to be upset! It can be frustrating when things don’t work the first time. Let me know when you are ready to try again.

Remember to praise actions not outcomes

  • When you worked slowly you were able to ________! (solve the problem, read the word, finish the maze)
  • Drawing a picture helped you think about what you wanted to write.
  • You said the steps out loud and that helped you tie your own shoe.

Our Child’s Teacher:

  • How does my child feel about struggle?
  • What are the next, easier-to-reach steps for my child?
  • What plans and supports are in place for my child to feel capable and in control of their learning?
  • What are the most helpful things for me to do to support my child’s continued growth at home?

So Teachers, What Do We Say to…

Our Students:

  • Mistakes are how your brain grows.
  • You’ve learned to do hard things before, you can learn to do this. What helped you learn to do _____?
  • Who can you ask for more help?
  • How can I help you?

Remember to praise actions not outcomes

  • When you worked slow you were able to find the problem.
  • Drawing a picture helped you think about what you wanted to write.
  • You said the steps out loud and that helped you tie your own shoe.

The Parents of Our Students:

  • How does your child feel about struggle?
  • How does your child respond to struggle at home?
  • Struggle is an expected part of learning, not a reason for worry.
  • Here are the strategies/plan at school to support your child in both developing skills and a positive mindset about _____:
  • Here are the best ways to support your child at home:
  • Here is the growth trajectory we think we will see:
  • Here are the benchmarks that demonstrate exciting growth:

A Last Word

I want everything to be easy for my child. I want him to believe the world is good and kind. I want to keep him from pain and from worry and challenge. I want him wrapped in emotional bubble wrap. And yet, the world is hard. Life has pain and worry and cruelty. The best gift I can give my child is the ability to feel capable in the face of challenge, and compassion in the face of pain. The chance to bounce back from struggle and to find love and be loved. You do not learn these things in the absence of difficulty, rather, it is the presence of child sized struggles and challenges that engenders such development.

Don’t fear struggle, celebrate growth.

More Resources for Parents and Teachers

For White Folks That Teach in The Hood… and the rest of ya’ll too by Christopher Emdin

Mindset By Carol Dweck

The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

A Mindset For Learning by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz

Kids First from Day One by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz

Huge thanks to Aeriale Johnson for her critical reading eye and invaluable input on this piece.

This is the second installment in a series by Kristine Mraz on the intersection of teaching and parenting. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series so far:

Teaching While Parenting: About This Series

Teaching While Parenting: Unpacking the Phrase “I Hate School!”

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Kristine Mraz

Kristine Mraz is coauthor — with Christine Hertz — of the new Kids First from Day One, which provides a practical blueprint for increasing the child-centeredness of your teaching practice. She and Christine previously teamed up for the bestselling A Mindset for Learning (coauthored with Christine Hertz), which provides practical and powerful strategies for cultivating optimism, flexibility, and empathy alongside traditional academic skills.

Kristi has also coauthored — with Alison Porceli and Cheryl Tyler — Purposeful Play, the book that helps you make play a powerful part of your teaching. Her previous title is the bestselling. She and Marjorie Martinelli wrote Smarter Charts and Smarter Charts for Math, Science, and Social Studies ​to get the most out of this classroom staple. Their popular blog Chartchums keeps teachers in touch with ongoing and relevant classroom issues and ways to use charts as a support. Chartchums is also on Facebook and on Twitter @chartchums!

Kristi teaches Kindergarten in the New York City Public schools. In addition to writing and teaching, she consults in schools across the country and as far away as Taiwan. She primarily supports teachers in early literacy, play, and inquiry based learning. On the off chance she has free time, you’ll find Kristi reading on a couch in Brooklyn with her husband, and baby Harry. You can follow all of her adventures on twitter @MrazKristine or on her blog

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