Have you ever felt the creeping doubt seep into every fiber of your body? The slow dread of talking yourself out of taking action on an important task? How do confident people do it? More importantly when you see the fear creep into a students’ eyes in class, how do you respond as a mentor, instructor, and motivator?

I’ve seen so many kids crumble when they feel they’ve been pushed up against the wall. Getting them over that wall is sometimes near impossible. The trick for me is to get that kid to reframe the sticking point. I teach with the mantra that taking multiple perspectives is the path to true understanding. With that said, it’s hard to get a frustrated student to look past their own limited perspective and think outside the box. How do we do it?

I start simple.

  1. Sit down with the student. Physically bring yourself down to their level. This creates a pseudo-peer relationship and helps relieve some of the stress the student might have place themselves under.
  2. Ask the student what they are doubting. I say the word doubt here very specifically. The word fear is too anxiety provoking and asking them what is ‘wrong’ might only exacerbate the paralyzing grip of fear. Describing what they are doubting about themselves or about the information asks them to think meta-cognitively for a moment about their thinking. This is always the key to unlocking a block.
  3. Identify one thing that they are doing well. Even if it is something not related to the content. I often use the comment. “Well I’m impressed with your effort at the moment. It might take you a few minutes to work through this. If you still need help in 5 minutes I’ll come back with a hint for you”. This leads to the kicker…
  4. Give them time to build the confidence back up. They want to get it. They want to satisfaction of doing it on their own. Don’t just give an answer away to a student, you just robbed them of the confidence you were trying to build and it will leave them even more fearful of the next time it happens and they will always be looking to someone else for the solution.

If/When you go back and give a hint, There are two approaches that I have found that seem to work.

  1. Ask a peer at the group to give a hint. Then ask the table to discuss and present as a team.

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