“I Can’t Do It”

Understanding Discouraged Students

I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. I’m dumb. Have you ever encountered these phrases in your classroom? It’s hard to respond to this mentality because immediate instinct leads us to disregard the student’s emotion. For example, when faced with a student saying, “I can’t do it,” our immediate response is likely, “Yes you can!” This is a positive message with good intentions but, sadly, what we are doing is immediately contradicting the student. I don’t say this with harsh judgement; I have done this myself many times. It’s enormously frustrating when a person gives up before they’ve tried, especially when you know they are capable. “Just try!” we want to shout. “You aren’t dumb, but you have to try!”

First, let’s try to understand what’s happening from the student’s point of view. Where does this mentality come from? Here a couple things that could be triggering this mindset:

  1. Over time, the student has learned to doubt him- or herself. Perhaps the student is regularly disregarded or torn down by family or friends. Or maybe the student often struggles with school-based learning and rarely experiences success. Similarly, a student who has very accomplished parents or siblings might feel that no matter what they do, they can’t live up. Rather than try and fail again, they simply don’t try.
  2. The student’s normal mode of thinking is expansive and and can see many connections. Students with this kind of mentality often don’t have a straight-forward, linear thought process. Instead their minds explore in different directions, seeing many possibilities. When faced with a closed question with one precise answer, they can shut down — “I can’t.” They feel the pressure of that one, right answer looming over them and rather than face immediate failure, they don’t try at all.

Either way, students in these scenarios feel cut off from possibilities.

What’s needed?

When students are in this state, they have become stuck. Even if there are many ways to answer the closed question, they can’t see it. Telling them to “just try” doesn’t get at the core of the emotion here. “Just try” is tantamount to saying, “Just ignore how you’re feeling and do it anyway.”

Instead, we need to look for ways to help the student step out of that scarcity mentality and tap into the richness of possibilities. Here are some examples:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Oftentimes, you can get at the same learning objectives without asking a lot of closed questions. By focusing on open-ended questions that allow students to explore different ideas or perspectives, students with this mentality won’t lock up so easily. Furthermore, you are helping all your students with critical thinking skills.
  2. Take pressure off of the “right” answer. Even when there is a correct answer and it is important for students to learn how to calculate it, it’s counterproductive to force them when they are in a stuck mentality. Instead, try to focus on the process. Ask them to consider what they might do to find the answer or ask them which parts are difficult. With the pressure of “right” removed, the student can start exploring the problem without imminent failure looming overhead. Even if they don’t get to the right answer today, they have begun to step outside of the mind prison that’s blocking their thought process.
  3. Encourage students to mind-map or in some way scrawl different ideas, questions, and confusions. For students who feel hemmed in by linear thought processes, this can help them follow the meandering processes that come more naturally.
  4. When students are answering a question, encourage them to write down all their bad ideas too. For students who are feeling so intimidated about being wrong that they won’t put anything down, this can help get their minds churning — Don’t worry about being completely and totally wrong, I want all your ideas!
  5. Encourage students to doodle. For students whose minds will wander away in many directions, simple doodling can help keep them focused and less overwhelmed by unorganized thoughts.

We are all capable of this scarcity mentality, where we are cut off from our own capabilities or everything feels impossibly daunting. When we encounter students in this mindset, a natural reaction is to bust them out of it with encouragement or contradictory statements — “Of course you can do it!” But sometimes by offering counterpoints we only make the mind prison stronger. Just think of a time when you felt overwhelmed and someone contradicted you — “It’s not that hard, you can do it.” How well did you take it? The more you say, “Yes you can” to a person in this mindset, the more you hear back, “No I can’t.” Instead, try giving space to the situation. Remove the pressure of being “right” and help the student explore winding possibilities so they can ease their way out of the mind cage.

To learn more about empathy in the classroom and how to use Pear Deck to encourage emotional awareness in your students, see these articles: