Think back to the last time you really struggled to learn something new. Maybe it was learning a new computer program for your job that you just couldn’t figure out. Perhaps it was learning a new piece of music on your favorite instrument. You were SO frustrated. You tried and tried, but you just couldn’t master the skill the right way. Then, as if by magic, you tried the skill again another day and “snap” ⏤ everything just worked perfectly. You suddenly understand how the computer program works or how the piece of music seems to just flow out of your instrument. 

Would this small triumph have been so meaningful if you hadn’t had to struggle a bit? If you hadn’t had to struggle to learn the skill, would you have learned it as well? Perhaps an even more important question is this: if someone had stepped in and done the skill for you, how would you have felt, and would you have ever learned the skill yourself?

These are all questions that researchers have attempted to answer in recent years regarding the role of struggle in learning. Let’s delve into this topic to understand how we can help our children learn to embrace and cope with frustration in learning (and life). 

The Benefits of Struggle

When we see our child struggling with something ⏤ whether it’s tying their shoes or solving an Algebra problem ⏤ our first instinct is to jump in and help. We don’t like to see our children struggle. Part of being emotionally attuned to our children means that when they feel upset or frustrated, we feel part of that emotion with them. Their distress becomes our distress.

What if, however, the struggle and frustration they are experiencing is actually a key aspect of the learning process? In recent years, the science of neuroplasticity has been showing us just this idea. While children may prefer to practice skills or facts that they have already mastered in order to look or feel “smart,” researchers tell us that it’s actually the struggle to learn something new that makes children (and all of us) improve the connections within our brains. Each time a person (child or adult) practices a new skill or retrieves a new fact, neural connections within the brain are being laid down. Making these new connections feels challenging, but with each practice or retrieval, the connection becomes a little stronger. Thus, research shows us that this feeling of struggle or frustration is actually what helps us learn new things

We can understand this process even better by considering how connections are made in the brain at the most basic level. When we learn something new, we create new connections between the neurons in our brains. The substance in our brain that helps “pave” these new connections is called myelin. At first, the connections between neurons are weak, but with practice, they become stronger. Myelin makes the connections even faster and more efficient. Thus, once the connections are strong and fast with myelin, the learning is more solidified. 

Coping With Frustration 

Understanding that struggle is part of the learning process is helpful. However, when our children really feel that struggle and experience frustration, what can help them keep going? Can they learn to tolerate that frustration and move forward with learning? It turns out that frustration tolerance is another key component of this puzzle. Children who can experience frustration but learn to tolerate it well enough to continue down their path tend to be more successful. Research shows that children who can tolerate frustration (as measured by a frustration tolerance task) tend to do better academically and even persevere longer towards a college degree. These findings are especially interesting as they hold true even after taking into account other important factors such as children’s demographic characteristics and even their intelligence. Thus, it seems that a key piece of learning well is not only understanding that frustration comes with the territory, but developing a tolerance for this frustration. 


How to Foster Frustration Tolerance

The good news for us is that the ability to tolerate frustration is not a static trait. Like many emotional skills, frustration tolerance can be improved with practice and intention. Through our daily interactions with them, as parents, we can help our children learn this valuable skill. Here are a few real-life ways to help foster your child’s tolerance for frustration:

  • Validation: It seems counterintuitive that by validating our child’s frustration, we might actually help them cope with it better. Simply put, hearing and validating your child’s frustration helps them process it. When we say things like, “It’s no big deal. Why are you so frustrated?” we inadvertently invalidate their feelings and then they might even become more frustrated. By validating our children’s feelings of frustration, we offer them a way to make sense of them and hopefully move forward.
  • Suggest Problem-solving Skills: Helping children focus on problem-solving rather than getting mired down in frustration is key. We don’t want to solve the problem for them, but we can offer support. When your child becomes frustrated, offer to help them think through the problem with them (not for them). It can be helpful to ask if they want your help rather than just tossing out suggestions or recommendations (this might just make them more frustrated).  
  • Allow frustration (in small amounts): Allowing our children to be frustrated at times can be exceedingly difficult for parents. It is difficult to see them upset. By allowing them to be frustrated at times, they are gradually building up their tolerance to cope with it. However, we can moderate the amount of frustration our children experience at times by breaking up tasks into smaller pieces or finding tasks that help scaffold their development towards a goal. For example, asking a second grader to complete a lengthy multi-step word problem for math is an unreasonable amount of frustration to suggest. However, we could take one step of the math problem as a “stretch” problem for them to attempt to complete.

True learning often involves struggle and frustration. Helping children understand that this struggle is not a sign of weakness but actually a sign of their brain making new connections can help them persist in the face of challenges. Learning to cope with the frustration and keep moving forward toward their goals is a wonderful life skill to give our children.

Preview Blurb: When was the last time your child got SO frustrated while learning something new that they just wanted to give up? Learning can sometimes involve a lot of struggle and frustration. But is struggling with learning a sign of weakness or lack of ability? Think again! Read on to discover how to help children understand the role of struggle and how to help them cope with frustration while learning.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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