Do We Always Need To Help?

I had an interesting conversation with my step-dad on the way to summer school this morning. My step-dad is a director, principal, and high school teacher at a private school, and over the years, he’s taught me a lot about teaching and learning. This discussion though really made me think.

We were talking about when students struggle. Sometimes they find the work challenging. Sometimes they’re not sure of the answer. Sometimes they don’t know where to begin. Usually, when students have difficulties, they ask for help from the adult in the room: be it a teacher, educational assistant, principal, parent, or volunteer. And as adults, I think that we want to help. We want to see students succeed, and often with our help, they do.

  • How much help though is too much help?
  • If we give students the answer, are we helping them?
  • How can we help students best?
  • When, if ever, should we (adults) choose not to help? What could we do instead?

Then there comes the next part of this problem. When students meet with success (either with our help or an alternate way) and can do the work on their own, what do we do next? There’s a certain comfort that comes with “success.” When all students know what to do, and all students can do the work well, teaching becomes easier. The classroom becomes quieter. There are far fewer issues. But when it gets to this point, are we really helping students move to the next level? How can we push them forward? 

As adults, and as students, learning new things can be hard. For the students that my step-dad works with, almost all of them have special needs. Learning new things is then usually incredibly hard. Often this learning comes with frustration. Sometimes this learning comes with tears. But letting students push through these difficulties, allowing them to struggle and then succeed, and balancing the need for support and independence, seems to make sense to me. If we want students to see that they’re ultimately in charge of their own learning, then in some way, don’t we need to give them the opportunity to take this control? 

As educators, administrators, and/or parents, how do you respond when student or adult learners need help? How do you continually push for improvement? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions!



20 thoughts on “Do We Always Need To Help?

  1. Dear Aviva,
    As a tutor, my first instinct is to help my students when I see them panic over a new concept or a topic. As a parent, I want my child( who is still in a primary grade) to complete his work in a given time. But when it comes to writing of any kind, he seems to have got used to getting my help.So I have tried to hold out on him. As a result his writing pieces as not as strong as they would have been with my help. But I am hoping there will be a positive end result and he will be able to complete his task independently in his class without support.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sandhya! You make a very interesting point here. I think that this independence is good, and I wonder if how we question students will help push them to this next level in their work. Your son’s work may not be as good as it would with your help, but is it more indicative of where he’s at in his learning? How does he feel after doing this work on his own? What impact does this independence at home have on his work at school? I’d be curious to hear if the teacher finds him to have more independence (as you hope that he does).


      • Aviva,

        Your questions nail it. He is proud of his writing, even if it is two or more sentences. It certainly leaves a gap between expectations in the classroom and actual performance. But, according to the teacher, slowly he should get there.


  2. Aviva I know we have had conversations on this but here are my thoughts. I am very reluctant to offer help in the traditional sense. I think it is only human nature to help in anyway we can; however, this tends to lead to us telling, the person copying and no real learning being done. Yes students work looks amazing and it is what we want to see but did they really understand. My help tends to be more in the sense of questions and scaffolding. Questions lead to more questions which leads to possible outcomes.

    I know my students and my daughter get annoyed at me but in the end after all the confusion they really understand the concept. In many cases they can even teach it back. I think this is the most important part part of learning, students, and adults need to be in a disequilibrium where they are trying to figure things out and if needed support is there. Just my thoughts. Great post as usual

    • Thank you for the comment, Jonathan! I know that we’ve spoken about this topic before, and I agree with you that questions help push students forward. Watching my previous VP, as she came to talk to my students throughout the year, helped me see the power of good questions. Students get used to people asking them these questions too, and in time, I find that they start to embrace the struggle. Last year, I worked with older students (Grade 5), and I’m curious to see how younger students (Grade 1) respond to this questioning approach. I foresee more blog posts in the future. 🙂

      Thanks for chiming in on this topic and sharing the impact that you’ve seen in letting students work through the difficulties and experience success!


  3. One of the things I’ve started to do when my students ask me for help is to ask them how they would like me to help them. I don’t assume what kind of help they need and I wait for them to voice it. For those who struggle with that (and over time the struggling decreases) I offer suggestions of ways I could help. I strongly believe children should be in control of their learning which includes being able to ask for specific help when they need it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Karen! I think that asking students to express explicitly what they need help with makes a lot of sense. But say a student says to you, “I need help spelling ______.” Do we always help them out? What if we instead asked, “Hmmmm … I wonder how you could find out how to spell this word. What could you do?” Students often want adult assistance and receive it (for as adults, we want to help students out), but what impact does this have on their independence? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately …


      • The answer for certain is NO. It is not my job to rescue my students when they are struggling. It is my job to give them skills so things become less challenging for them and they can continue to acquire new skills. Spelling is a perfect example. My students know they must give a solid effort first with the letter sound knowledge that they have before I will step in and guide them. If they don’t take that chance and try first and I give them the answer right away what message and I sending them? In addition it is not assumed that I will step in each time either and provide the correct spelling after they have attempted it. During conferences we may talk about the words they were not sure about and at that point I could help them by perhaps adding it to their personal dictionaries. I think our role is less about rescuing our students and more about supporting and provding them skills so they can do it more independently.

        • Karen, we’re definitely on the same page here. Maybe, more than anything else, this discussion on “help” comes down to the role that teachers play in the classroom. If students see them as the “holder of all knowledge,” they will only look to teachers for the answers. If students realize that this is not the case, their independence will blossom as a result.

          • I definitely agree with what’s being said here! I consistently use the same type of language as Karen with my students. They know there are many strategies that are available to them before they ask for help. I will always ask them “What have you already tried?” if they seek help followed by “What could I do that would be helpful to you?” At first, students are very unsure about this way of learning; they have been well conditioned to seek out the easiest route possible to success. We need to model the route of overcoming struggle as the most meaningful one.

            I wonder if it’s our definition of “help” that is at question here…

          • Thanks for your comment, Beverley! You make a great point here. I think that help is often seen as giving the answers versus questioning and supporting to let the students come to the answers on their own.


  4. Wow! This one touched a nerve. I am realizing more and more that I help WAY too much! My younger son (aged 11) is taking on a mammoth task this summer, and is trying to teach me, his spatially-impaired mother, to use Minecraft. Many of my reactions to his “help” have been somewhat rude, despite the fact that his intentions are nothing but good. We are both learning, and I realize, when I get cranky at him for stepping in too soon to help, how often I step in way too soon for many of my students. I love the idea of asking for the kind of help you need and I have been working toward that in my own practice. In our Minecraft lessons, I think I will work towards asking more specific questions. And yes…our Minecraft experience will be reflected in a blog post (probably more than one).

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa! It’s interesting how your son’s help made you reflect on how you help students. I also think that asking questions may be key. I’m very excited to read your Minecraft blog posts when they’re done. Please share. 🙂


  5. Terrific conversation!
    I wanted to pick up on the idea of conferencing that Karen mentioned. As a high school teacher, conferencing is not nearly as typical as it needs to be. I have always conferenced with my students, but until recently, it was used a check-in strategy with students who were working on cumulative projects, and I wanted to be sure that they were completing the various tasks in a timely fashion. However, this year, through collaborative inquiry work, I discovered the power of conferencing as a means to GET feedback from students on their learning.

    When working with a student, I did use a series of questions to determine if he or she needed any further clarification. Most of the time, the student would have questions for me, too, which directed the conversation. And that’s what it was, a conversation between us. I was careful not to use the word “help”, as in “Can I help you? or “Do you need help?” Rather, I would ask “Where are you in the writing process?” or “How are you annotating this text?” or “Explain how your planning helped you get this far in the project.” The students answers would drive the conversation.

    Sometimes, though, students would not engage in the conference. They clearly needed help, but were not ready to acknowledge that. In these cases, I let them go back to their work. At first, I thought that I was just unwilling to push them, but as the semester wore on and those students came around to talking about the challenges they encountered in their work, I realized that they simply needed more time to trust the process. What fabulous feedback for me!

    In their course summary of learning, almost every student identified the teacher-student conference as one of their preferred ways of learning because they felt that they had a voice in their learning and they appreciated the feedback in that form. I have never “helped” so many students before with that kind of ease and power.

    • Thanks Julie for sharing your experiences! I love hearing that this conferencing strategy worked so well for your students. I think that you make a very important point about time. Many of your high school students needed time to articulate their needs and share when they do need help. Other students may be quick to voice when help is needed, but need time to think about the problem, explore the answers to some follow-up questions, and solve the problem more independently. We can’t underestimate the value of time and the power in listening to students vocalize their needs!


  6. Dan Myers has a great presentation on being a less helpful teacher. Check it out here:

    I think that teachers are helpers, we like to help and that is why we chose to be in the teaching profession. I also believe that our need to help is hindering the success of students. Students are not provided with opportunities to struggle with ideas, problems or situations that require them to think and persevere. Dan Myers makes some great points in his presentation, I try to go back and watch this once or twice a year to keep my need to ‘help’ students in check.

    • Thanks for the link, Bonita! I will definitely have a look at this presentation. I wonder though if we have to reconsider what “help” means. For me at least, during most of my years of teaching, “helping” meant answering the question for students. It meant giving students the information. But maybe we can still help students, but with the use of questions. Our questions will help them come to the answer on their own instead of just looking to us for answers. This is something I continue to consider …


      • I believe Dan Myers does give a new definition of what ‘helping’ means, within the context of teaching. Let me know your thoughts once you have viewed Dan Myers’ presentation.

        • Thanks for the comment, Bonita! I just saw the link to the presentation in your last comment. I understand what you’re saying here, and I do tend to agree, but do all of us think this way when “helping” students in the classroom? How can we build a more shared understanding?


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