What To Say To A Needy, Dependent Student

Smart Classroom Management: What To Say To A Needy, Dependent StudentNeediness can seem amplified the first month of the school year.

Your new class is younger than the group you finished with just weeks before.

And many come to you from teachers who coddled, over-helped, and rewarded them into apathy and dependence.

Even if you begin the year . . .

teaching highly detailed lessons.

modeling explicitly.

having students practice what you expect.

Even if you check thoroughly for understanding, and your new class proves they know what to do when you give your ‘go’ signal, you may still have students frozen slack-jawed in their seats.

You may still have students make pleading eye contact with you while stretching their hand as high as it can go.

Such is the power of learned helplessness.

The problem with simply ignoring it is that many students won’t even try. They’ll sit paralyzed, unable to get started. If you’ve taught the lesson well, however, they don’t need much.

The bullet-pointed strategies above will have brought them right up to the ledge. All they need is a little push.

What follows are five things you can say to them that will do the trick. Just be sure you keep some physical distance between you and them. Do not lean down, kneel next to them, or show any sympathy.

I know this may sound harsh, but it’s the most compassionate thing you can do for these students. Just approach, and while making eye contact, say one or more of the following . . .

1. “You don’t need me.”

2. “You can do this.”

3. “I believe in you.”

Then walk away. If after a few long minutes they’re still struggling, then approach one more time and ask what the trouble is. No matter what they say, respond with one of the following . . .

4. “So what are you going to do about it?”

5. “So what is your plan?”

Hear them out, pause, and then say, “You got this” or “Now, go and do it.” If they still seem at a loss, then follow with one more, “I believe in you,” and perhaps a fist bump. Then be on your way for the rest of the independent work period.

No More Lies

The idea is to wean them off needing you to do or think what they can do and think for themselves.

Therefore, every day, after setting your students up for success with good instruction, be very wary about stepping in and strongly reluctant to help individual students.

Stay back and away, accept no excuses, and allow them the dignity to take responsibility for themselves and their learning. Challenge them through your inaction to make their own choice about their future.

But won’t they just sit there? Won’t they just struggle? Won’t they produce minimal work?

At first, yes. There is a chance they won’t get much done. But this is okay. It’s even good, because it’s really them. It’s who they are at this moment.

Their true abilities are no longer based on fake production or pretend improvement that’s been projected onto them by a teacher desperate to show progress.

The truth is the only way up.

Their base level, both academically and motivationally, provides the footing to start making real and lasting improvement. Reality has a unique and unparalleled way of kicking them into gear.

Being forced, essentially, to either sit and do nothing or succeed, which you’ve prepared them for, is a powerful motivator to pursue the latter.

In just a few days, at most, they’ll get better. They’ll begin their work sooner and work for longer periods of time. They’ll produce more and with higher quality. Through early ups and downs, if you stay the course, they’ll get stronger and more confident.

They’ll stop looking to you.

Which gives you a chance to praise them based not on half-truths, lies, or distortions—which merely send the message that they’re not good enough and they really do need you—but based on real success and what they, too, can see with their own eyes.

Thus, they know it to be true and well-earned.

Which feels unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. It cranks their intrinsic motivational engine on for the first time, turning their world upside down.

And it changes everything.

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16 thoughts on “What To Say To A Needy, Dependent Student”

  1. I often have parents of A students complaining to administrators that students have to teach themselves because even though they are given good examples and guided practice I won’t stop at their child’s desk and walk them to the solution. Most of the time my administration says, “isn’t that great that she’s teaching your children to think. “

  2. Every year I have to remember this all over again. At first it seems so overwhelming and even frustrating. I think, “Gosh my kids last year weren’t so helpless.” It’s not true, like you said I am just remember my much older and trained students from the year before and I must I keep reminding myself every year I have to teach them how to be independent, how to work through their problems whether it’s social or academic.

    I remind myself of the extreme behaviors in learned helplessness that started with a student hating me and trying to be removed from my class because I kept prompting them to try, that I knew they could do it. How their parent was furious that their child’s grades were no longer perfect and I wasn’t spending enough time teaching their child one on one. Going to my principal and questioning me and my abilities to teach their child…

    And I just keep reminding myself that by the end of the year that same child loved me and cried because the year was over. That student could work independently and confidently through their problems.

    It’s hard but they will be grateful in the end.

  3. Thank you Michael, I really want to focus more on this next year to create a more independent class. One question I have is what to do when most of the class has proven their understanding but a few are struggling (eg maths problems). Is it ok to then make a group of them and continue teaching/helping while others get on independently? Thanks again, Heidi

    • Hi Heidi,

      I’d focus on how I can teach it in a way that they do get it with everyone else. That isn’t to say that you can’t have a small group of those who haven’t proven understanding, it’s just that I’d be careful about doing too much of this. Otherwise, they’ll begin tuning you out during whole-class instruction.

  4. I heartily agree with this article.Teaching high school special education, I have several of these students who might deliberate even over where to write a heading. Some HATE and fear to be wrong (ASD students) but I still say to them, what do you think? And I encourage them to write this down, and we discuss what will happen if you are wrong… you learn from your mistakes – no big deal. Just last week, this student sat down and independently started working on unfinished work from the previous lesson. Winning.

    • I was just wondering why I have a couple of students complaining that I am not teaching them, and your article reminded me that I am holding them accountable for their effort and learning, and they just don’t like that. The hardest part is when there’s criticism from parents. I must remember that I truly have the best intentions for them, teaching them that they don’t need me for every little step.

  5. Excellent article and very helpful. I dealt with that same issue last year and at times, I did not know what to do. Thanks a million for the advise, I will put it into practice this school year!

  6. Me to students all year long: “Figure out a way to solve your problem.”

    Until one day I was whining about something, and a student sassily responds: “Figure out a way to solve your problem!”


  7. Thank you for this article. Question: does this apply to a child that really doesn’t understand what is going on in the class? The child is well behaved but does not understand English well and has very little comprehension. Thank you

  8. Hi Michael

    Very good article with interesting advice. I love articles about making students independent, as it’s the best way to help a child succeed.

    Two questions, please, Mike:

    1. Do you make arrangements for one on ones with struggling students outside of class? For example, with students who don’t seem to be “getting it” or are just not producing much.

    2. Should we avoid one on ones, if we truly, want independent learners?


  9. Thanks for your articles. I’m a seasoned teacher but there’s always room for improvement.
    Question: I work in a middle school with many students who live in/have had very traumatic lives (gangs, foster care, EL students who fear family will be deported, etc). I have found that these students need someone to check in with them (ex. Have you eaten? Is your sister okay?) I have students who shut down completely until they feel that they’re in a safe environment and their basic needs are met(Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). What would you suggest I do with these students who don’t do their work/shut down for reasons like this?

  10. When I have students that have been ‘spoon-fed’, and just give up if they don’t get individual help, I ask them what they don’t understand. When they say “everything” I point to the first word on the paper and ask, “Do you understand this word?”, and proceed to the next word until they get sick of answering “yes” to every word in the instructions. After experiencing this a couple of times they usually stop asking for help until they know exactly what they don’t understand.

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