Last week on the blog I talked about how rigor is for all students no matter age or academic ability / difference. As part of that conversation, I mentioned the difference between productive struggle and destructive struggle. Since then, I have had some questions brought to me about how to know when a struggle moves from being productive to destructive. While often this depends on how the activity is structured, this is not always the case. Sometimes you can have a perfectly designed activity that academically is just too far out of their reach. Thankfully, there are some easy markers to know when an activity is just too much.

Just Right Activities land where the child can do between 90 and 95% of the task without support. This may mean that the child can read between 90-95% of the words or it may mean that they can do 90-95% of the problems accurately or it may mean that the child understands 90-95% of the concepts. The goal is to work within comfort and stretch just a little bit. Sometimes this stretch comes within the content and other times the stretch is in the presentation method.

Too Difficult Activities happen when a child cannot do at least 90% of the task without support. When we ask too much of a student, he or she shuts down and the struggle to complete what he or she was asked to do becomes destructive. One example of how this can happen is if you ask the child to do something new using new content. It would never be prudent to ask a child to summarize what he or she learned during his or her last science lesson if the child just learned the new science content and has never done a summary. Rather, move this activity from a too difficult activity to a just right activity by asking the child to use information that he or she is well proficient in to write a summary.

Too Easy Activities occur when the child can do more than 95% of the task on their own. These activities are boring and frustrating in their own way – they also cause a destructive struggle. Let’s go back to the example we had for the too difficult activity and change it up a bit. Let’s say that your child knows how to write a summary and has already mastered the content in the science lesson. But, you still ask them to write a summary of the lesson because that is what you always do. The activity is too easy and will therefore likely lead to a destructive struggle. So rather than ask your child to write a summary the regular way, what if you changed it up and had them summarize the content in acrostic or haiku form? This would add a new element to summary writing that would then challenge the child right into their just right zone.

Finding the gap of 90-95% proficiency can be difficult and requires paying close attention to your child. It requires parent involvement and a willingness to try new things as the adult but in the end, it is completely worth it. In the end, it brings about greater excitement and greater learning. Though finding the gap can take some work, changing the activities doesn’t have to. Take baby steps. Keep it smart. Keep it simple. Keep the struggle productive.