Children struggling in school can experience high levels of stress and anxiety as well as confusion and feelings of disappointment. They may begin to feel helpless when it comes to overcoming academic obstacles, especially if they have made efforts for a long while without positive results.

So how can we support students in this situation? A big focus should be placed on helping them feel more in control of their own learning. There are many ways of doing this, so let’s look at just a few!

Give students space to organize and manage their study time.

Students will likely need support with this area. Their tutor can help them find tools (agenda, phone calendar, personally designed organizer, etc.) and explore using those tools for periods of time to determine how useful and effective they are for that student. It can be empowering for students to feel like they have control over when, where, and how much time they will spend working on homework, studying and other schoolwork.


This may seem counter-intuitive, but when students have become disengaged from their own learning, they may not be motivated enough to work towards better grades. Personalized rewards can help students who feel helpless to find motivation through having something worth aiming for.

Rewards can be assigned on a micro level, using small immediate rewards that can be earned on the spot. A micro level reward example could be, “if we stay focused and get through these 3 math problems, we can take a 10-minute phone break and you can play your favorite game.” Another option is to think of larger, more macro-based rewards. “Let’s aim for a 70% on your next test and if you reach that goal, you can go to your favorite water park for a whole day.”

The key is to let students choose what would be most rewarding to them, with the understanding that their choices may change along the way. Student-chosen rewards will help ensure that they are most likely to work hard at overcoming whatever obstacle is facing them.

Explore ideas of ‘fixed’ vs. ‘growth’ intelligence.

Typically, students who feel like they have tried everything with no results over long periods of time develop what is called learned helplessness – “feelings of lost control, and it creates students who disengage from effort.”[i] They are likely to hold the belief that they are just less intelligent than most of their peers, and that this is a fixed state – it is just the way things are. Students who have reached this point can benefit from discussions about how intelligence is something that grows and improves over time, especially if we work on it in ways that best suit our personal learning styles.

Tutors are well equipped to tackle these themes as well as find customized approaches to learning that WILL work for their students. It may take some time to convince students that there are ways for them to find success, but persistence, consistency and customized support can certainly help them get there.

Empowering students to get involved in their own learning, to reward themselves and to understand that we each have our own unique and different ways of learning: these are some means to help students overcome their academic obstacles. We know they are capable and that their potential is endless. The most important piece of the puzzle is that THEY must know that as well.

[i] For more about learned helplessness: How to Counter Students’ Learned Helplessness | Edutopia