The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

How to help children who say they are 'stuck'

Teachers are sometimes far too quick to respond to requests for help. How do children benefit from being 'stuck' and how can we encourage them to find a solution independently? 

When some children encounter a problem, difficulty, or challenge, they stop.

Sometimes stopping and pausing for a moment lets them gather their thoughts, but invariably they just stop and wait for help. They are either:

  • reluctant to make mistakes
  • they don’t fully understand what to do
  • they feel the work is too difficult.

When children say they are ‘stuck’ then the best thing to do is leave them to it. 

Being intellectually and cognitively challenged to the point where we think we can't make progress can be frustrating and in some cases paralysing. But being 'stuck' has its merits and immediate teacher input isn’t necessary.

Joy of being stuck

In his book The Art of Standing Out, Andrew Morrish calls this joy of being stuck (JOBS). He says:

‘When a child is stuck, they should embrace and celebrate this, for they are about to learn something new.’

Of course, we have to catch children being stuck.

They are never normally shy coming forward to tell us they are stuck (although many 'silent' learners do) but there will always be occasions that they will leave the classroom or vacate a lesson in a state of confusion because they haven't got out of what James Nottingham calls the 'learning pit'.

He's developed a whole philosophy around it which he explains in this animated video.

Useful strategies

Sometimes children can be overwhelmed by a problem or task when all they really need to do is work through small chunks independently before raising their hand for the teacher to check their work or help them.

However, spending too long being stuck is not a good state for a child to be in, as they can soon get frustrated and disillusioned. Giving them a useable strategy is therefore important.

  • Lots of teachers promote the ‘ask three before me’ technique. This simply involves telling children to ask three other people (teammates, group members or other children nearby) before coming to you if they have any questions or if something is stumping them.
  • A variation of this is ‘brain, book, board, buddy or boss’ where children consult three sources such as a book, the board or the web before consulting their friends with the teacher left until all options have been exhausted.  

This supports children to take ownership of their learning, interactions, and problems and teaches them how to collaborate and use each other for support, information and instruction. It shows them how to lean into their discomfort rather than avoid it. 

Normalising struggle

When children have tried, and we see that they are still flummoxed, then we can step in with a spade and try to dig them out, or at least lend them a learning spade so they can do it themselves.

Some teachers make sure that their class 'get stuck' all the time. They deliberately plan for children to 'get stuck' and intentionally select activities that will create cognitive conflict so they become great problem-solvers.

They do what Peter Johnston calls ‘normalising struggle’, where the goal is for children to accept and embrace both challenge and failure as opportunities to self-monitor, learn, develop and do better.

Sometimes we become unstuck when we walk away from the challenge as our brain needs the time and space to breathe

Being stuck is good because it accepts and acknowledges that there are no quick fixes and that learning is a struggle and that's quite normal.

However, being stuck isn't always what children like, accept or are used to, as they can be ‘accustomed to automaticity'.

The power of yet

Mathematical legend Andrew Wiles expresses this in this video. Skip along to around 57 seconds and hear his views. He says:

‘When you start doing mathematics as an older child or as an adult you need to accept this state of being stuck. Even people who are very good at mathematics sometimes find this hard to get used to and they feel that's where they're failing.

But it isn't: it's part of the process and you have to accept [and] learn to enjoy that process. Yes, you don't understand [something at the moment] but you have faith that over time you will understand — you have to go through this.’

This illustrates that being stuck isn’t necessarily something you have to immediately get out of because learning takes time. It’s important for children to recognise the power of saying ‘I don’t get it…yet.'

Yeti learners

A ‘yeti’ learner is someone who tries and tries, doesn’t give up and knows that it’s going to take some effort. They also understand that understanding comes from doing something else.

Sometimes we become unstuck when we walk away from the challenge as our brain needs the time and space to breathe. Andrew Wiles says:

‘Somehow your subconscious is making connections and you start again, maybe the next afternoon, the next day, the next week even and sometimes it just comes back.

I can't explain why. But you have to have the faith that that will come back.

The way some people handle this is they work on several things at once and then they switch from one to another as they get stuck. I can't do that.

Once I'm stuck on a problem I just can't think about anything else. So I just take a little time off and then come back to it.’

Learning requires plenty of courage and children won't ever develop if we are always helping smooth the way

This perhaps makes us think about whether we expect too much from children — being stuck in a lesson is fine and actually being stuck when the lesson has finished is also fine.

If our brains function more effectively after a break then perhaps we shouldn't try to solve everything in 45-60 minutes. Let children stay stuck overnight and let them sleep on their challenges in order to make new connections.

Having a break lets children see things from different perspectives and fresh angles. 

Stay stuck

Teachers can't be everywhere at once and even if you are in a position to help, should you? Isn't it better to allow children the time and space to think about what to do themselves?

We aren't talking about abandoning them but helping them by not rushing over like some sort of rapid response unit.

All children 'get stuck' — that's a normal part of learning. What’s important is how they react and what strategies they have to help solve a problem.

Further reading

  • Peter Johnston, Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning, Stenhouse Publishers (2004)

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