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Learning to Say ‘I Need Help’

Asking for help is hard. Our society glorifies independence so much that we think asking for help is a sign of weakness. In truth, I think asking for help allows kids to become more independent, and as a result, more motivated, confident and self-sufficient.

But how do we teach our kids to ask for help in school? If we can teach our kids to have these conversations on their own, they’ll be more in charge of their own education and better prepared to enter the workforce. Work with your child so he or she is prepared to approach his or teacher in the right way at the right time.

Build independence. Let your children figure things out for themselves. Goodness knows when I watch my daughter fiddle with her zipper for a good 10 minutes while the rest of us bundle up in our winter gear, I have to restrain myself. But I tell myself that the 10 minutes I wait today beats doing her laundry 20 years from now. Allow your child to make her own lunch, clean her room or help cook dinner.

Be an early bird. Long-term assignments should be broken down into discrete chunks with individual deadlines. Finishing parts of a project early will allow your child to seek help from the teacher along the way. Teachers respect students who ask for help and put in extra effort. But if a student arrives the morning a long-term assignment is due saying, “I didn’t get it,” teachers will likely be frustrated that he didn’t seek help earlier.

Try it first. When I cook my daughter something new, she invariably declares, “I hate this!” Predictably, I sigh, “But you’ve never tried it.” This isn’t so different from one of my students saying “I can’t do this” before she’s even attempted an assignment. Most teachers resist doing the work for the child. And they should. If teachers and parents do the work, the child won’t grow. We want kids to feel proud when they’ve worked hard to achieve something. Trying is the first step.

Help kids know themselves. I can’t advocate for myself if I don’t know my strengths and weaknesses. If I know I need to attach a story to a math problem to understand it, I’m better able to ask for help. This is particularly important for students labeled with disabilities. While teachers are more aware now than ever about accommodations, students should understand why they have extended time and the best way to use it.

Don’t blame. The successful students I interviewed for the January Family Times article “Putting Their Heads Together” explained that when parents intervene, it’s easy to blame. Kids might blame a bad grade on a hard day, broken printer or incompetent teacher. But blame does nothing to help. We’ve all had bosses we’ve disliked, but we still need to function. Engaged, responsible students find ways around hard days and broken equipment. They redo the work or email the assignment. When students are the ones who ask for help, it forces them to be honest as well as savvy.

Use role playing. Rehearse with your child the scenario of how to talk to a teacher. If students begin young, by the time they get to high school, it should feel natural. Encourage them to get specific. They should point to a problem or page that’s giving them trouble. Use “I” statements to get away from blaming. Suggest they say to their teacher: “I’m struggling with this. Could you help me?”

Determine the best time to ask. Some teachers may have a designated period for help, similar to college professors’ “office hours.” Asking at a bad time may lead to a less helpful response. When in doubt, students should say something like, “When would be a convenient time to get your help?”

Be honest and reasonable. I definitely remember moments when I nodded and said, “I get it,” when I really didn’t. Why do we do that? Impatience? Frustration? Embarrassment? Fear? Whatever it is, it’s important to talk with your child about these reactions—all perfectly normal—so that the lie doesn’t get in the way of seeking help. Lies and blame also happen when things feel too emotional. Are your children nervous about your reaction? Focus on the learning, not the grades. Keep your conversations logical, not reactive. 

Articulate the problem. It’s tough to solve a problem when you don’t know the issue. Parents can help kids verbalize what’s troubling them.

And, yes, parents should step in. . .  sometimes. If something has happened, like a death or divorce, it’s helpful for parents to share that information with a teacher. It strengthens the partnership between home and school, which is in the best interest of your child. You’ll also want to intervene if you see an abrupt decline in grades or attitude. This might indicate some kind of troubling event like bullying or substance abuse, and you should call the school to set up an appointment.

Kids don’t need to be isolated to be independent. Flourishing students, and adults, seek help. As Edwina Kisanga noted in the “Putting Their Heads Together” article: “You can be as naturally smart as you want but if you have so much pride that you can’t ask for help when you don’t understand, then you’re not ever going to get very far.”                            

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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