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Productive Struggle: What It Is and Why Your Child Needs It


When I read Renee’s first draft of this post about productive struggle, I had just come home from the children’s triathlon in my town. At the event, I thought to myself, “All the people who think kids these days are lazy should come to this,” because all the triathletes, regardless of skill or athletic ability, show incredible perseverance. One child was even rescued by lifeguards and then still went on to finish the bike and run portion of the race. C’mon…how many adults do you know who would keep going under those circumstances? It was a visible reminder of the entire point of this post:

Kids usually rise to the challenge when we adults give them the space, encouragement, and opportunity to do so.


Think back to a time when completing a challenging task required you to follow every step to perfection in order to achieve success, like assembling IKEA furniture or doing your taxes. Chances are your brain automatically utilized some pretty specific reading behaviors. Maybe you read all the directions before you started to get an overall scope of the process. As you began, you probably reread certain steps multiple times. When your brain sensed frustration, you might have taken a break (or someone suggested it once the curse words became audible enough for the kids to hear!).

Without realizing it, you use many of the same strategies your children are taught at school: reread, stay focused, take breaks, monitor for meaning.

The point is, because you wanted to complete the task successfully, you used your reading strategies, but also your perseverance to power through until you were satisfied, even if you experienced frustration along the way. You were motivated to put your new nightstand together or to get your taxes done.

Reading strategies don’t work if a child isn’t motivated to work hard. Many students lack experience with perseverance. They haven’t been asked to complete challenging tasks from start to finish, making perseverance an unknown feeling. And we all know that when feelings are new, they are often overwhelming. It doesn’t mean kids are lazy… it means they haven’t practiced this life skill yet.

Engage your child in opportunities for what educators call productive struggle. Essentially, this is when a task is challenging, and requires grit to continue.

If the child perseveres during a hard task (either mentally or physically), they will be rewarded when success is reached. We adults know that, but only because we’ve experienced it over and over. Children often haven’t.

Carol Dweck, author of the best selling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success writes “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can teach their children to do is to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”

Dweck also learned that children perform better when they are praised for how hard they are working, NOT how smart they are or the end result.

So here are some ways to help your child experience productive struggle: from simple to complex and ways to “lightly” intervene so they don’t give up!

Ideas for Practicing Productive Struggle With Your Kids

Activity When They Struggle Conclusion/Reward
Learning to tie shoes. If learning from watching you and learning side by side isn’t working, watch YouTube videos or ask others how they tie theirs. Chances are, one way will stick and that light bulb will go off. Take breaks, but practice each day until learned. Sense of independence (and no more tripping/stumbling due to untied shoes!)
Weeding a garden bed. Take pics to mark progress. Make comments like, “Once you get to the rose bush, let’s get some water.” Teach them to use spades or other garden tools to help so they learn to work smarter, not harder. Be sure to show them the difference between the plants you intend to keep and the pesky weeds. Tasks that are easy to mark progress can be especially gratifying. Encourage your child to then regularly water the plants and weed often to avoid more tedious weeding sessions!
Complete puzzles: word puzzles, dot-to-dots, jigsaw puzzles, Soduku, any kind of puzzle that might be harder than what you think they can typically can do. Encourage breaks, suggest when finished they call a relative to tell them about it. Like in a game show, allow them “lifelines” if they truly are stuck. Maybe phone a friend to help with a 5-letter synonym for frustrate (ha!) or give them a 50/50. Glue that 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle to a piece of cardboard to commemorate the first one! Rip out the next dot-to-dot and challenge grandma to complete one too! Connect with others online or in-person who like to complete puzzles.
STEAM challenges that have taken over Pinterest! Use science, technology, engineering, art, and/or math as an avenue for challenge. Start your sentences with:

“I like the way you are sticking with it!”

“I’m proud of the way you haven’t given up.”

“Keep trying!”

Often these projects are flat out fun to play with once complete, like a homemade marble run or the fourth little pig’s wind resistant house
Read a book series they love. Even though they love the series, sometimes the temptation to drop the series exists when the latest Scholastic Book Club flyer comes home or Grandpa offers to treat at the book store. Ensure them that these books will always be there, but finishing up a longer book once started is easier than coming back later. Mark milestones with activities. Each time my son finishes a Harry Potter book, we watch one of the movies. As my daughter finishes a Penderwicks novel, we eat a food one of the characters made! Pride. I mean, how does a child not grin when saying, “I’ve read the whole series!” Plus, you’ll find out the conclusion of all the story lines and know what happens to all the characters!


We know our world needs thoughtful problem solvers to fix tough, complex issues, whether it’s auto repair or world peace or a struggling marriage.

People equipped with patience, perseverance, and a desire to see a process through, with a dash of creativity, are those most likely to lead us into the future (and become very strong readers). Raising the next generation requires us to model more than how to slap on band-aids to stop bleeding or push issues under the rug. They are not a part of the world I wish to see.

If you’re tempted to spend money on a summer skills workbook for your child, instead set aside some time to create moments for productive struggle instead.

And while your child may or may not thank you now, his/her teacher will, along with the rest of us who need citizens who are motivated and well practiced at perseverance when the going gets tough.


Additional Resources and Ideas for Productive Struggle:

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