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When showering students with support backfires, it’s helpful to step back

I realized early on that Paul needed more support than some of the other seventh-graders I worked with. Even in my small-group tutoring sessions with five or six students, he had a hard time concentrating on his work. When he found the assignment for English class too challenging, he would crumple up paper and shoot it into the trash can as if he were a star basketball player, play with the windows in the room, or bother another student until I eventually came over to assist him.

Paul, whose name I changed to protect his privacy, was one of 15 students I worked with this past year. As a corps member with City Year, an AmeriCorps program, I worked with a teacher at the start of the year to identify students who struggled with English, then met with them daily for individualized tutoring and mentoring.

Working in a school for the first time this year, it was easy for me to assume that more time with students was always better, and that more support would always lead to better results. A lot of programs designed to support struggling students do so by giving them extra time and attention from teachers or people like me.

In some cases, I saw the additional attention I was providing pay off as students’ attitudes, grades and test scores improved. Yet for some students, including Paul, I worry that too much support might actually be detrimental in the long-run. With so much individual attention, students risk never learning to push themselves to succeed on their own.

I tutored Paul in a small group nearly every day of the school year. I attempted to build his confidence by reminding him that he was intelligent and could accomplish tasks independently. But inevitably, I ended up sitting next to Paul and helping him think through the answers to each question on his assignments.

When Paul was reading, I asked additional questions to make sure he understood the text. When he was writing an essay, I broke down the process into manageable chunks and helped him find evidence that supported his argument.

Under my careful watch, Paul participated in class and completed most of his classwork. When he was assigned to write an essay comparing themes in Langston Hughes’s “Thank You Ma’am” and Francisco Jiménez’s “Inside Out,” he got off to a good start in class.  We worked on the first part in class together, but things fell apart when he needed to finish the essay at home.

My City Year has ended, and Paul will probably work with another City Year corps member when he enters the eighth grade in the fall. In the short term, corps members can keep supporting him. But I’m concerned about Paul’s long-term success. At some point, likely in high school, he won’t get this one-on-one support anymore. And I don’t think I’ve prepared him to succeed on his own.

The solution is not straightforward. I observed Corps members and teachers alike struggling to determine what kind of support is most effective for each student, particularly students who really struggle with schoolwork. Often, we end up holding their hands temporarily, with the hope that they will eventually learn to work on their own.

With Paul, the “I Do-We Do-You Do” approach my mentors at City Year recommended to me ended up looking more like an “I Do-We Do” exercise. The “You-do” rarely happened. Other corps members on my team also expressed concern about students who relied too much on them and who were struggling to motivate themselves.

What did work well for Paul was when I stepped back and helped him see that instead of always relying on me, he could ask his peers to help hold him accountable for finishing his work. His classmate Theresa, who had the organizational skills that Paul lacked, agreed to help Paul finish his essays when I wasn’t around. Though Paul’s grades and test scores didn’t increase as much as he or I wanted them to, the fact that he was interacting with classmates around academic work and asking for help seemed to me a step in the right direction.

Those of us tasked with supporting students—and organizations like City Year that make our work possible—need to remember that too much support can backfire, even if students seem to be making progress in the short term. We need to keep working on finding creative ways to support students while still pushing them to stand on their own.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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