The Coddling Question: When is it “Sink or swim”?

Eric Charlesworth

by Eric Charlesworth

For Middle Level

My six-year-old son Henry is learning to swim, and recently I was with him in the pool as he flailed and splashed about. I wasn't sure how I should hold him; in fact, I decided to not hold him so much as make sure he knew where I was at all times.

Similarly, in school, I often struggle with how much support to give students.

For example, when my sixth-graders take notes, I offer a lot of support, setting up the note-taking in such a way that they can't fail. I provide organizers, do regular binder checks, and watch the room like a lifeguard watching the pool for struggling swimmers. Some of my colleagues in the upper grades do the same with older students, while others don't throw any life-savers the kids' way. "These students need to know how to take notes the real way," said one teacher. 

Teacvher helping students

And it is not just note-taking. The question, "Are we coddling these students?" comes up in many iterations at my school. How many homework reminders should we give? How many test retakes should we allow? Why are we always conversing rather than imposing consequences? Do we try so hard to meet students' needs that we are preventing them from learning critical self-efficacy skills?

I have a few ideas on this, and I'd love to hear others' thoughts. 

  • As a teacher, I try to be up front and clear about my objectives for learning. For example, if part of my goal is to get students to work on math problems for a long period of time with no teacher support, I make that clear to them.
  • Besides directly communicating with students, I also need to be clear with my colleagues. If I spend a great deal of time teaching children how to take notes like a college student, the teacher in the next grade should probably avoid going back to hand-holding with notes.
  • Different students need different supports. For example, if I hold students responsible for copying their homework down from the board, I may need to check on a few students who have executive-function issues.

How do you balance the priorities of helping students learn and stay organized, while also having them build self-sufficiency in these areas? Like helping Henry learn to swim, how do we help students navigate new waters on their own?

Eric Charlesworth is a sixth-grade mathematics teacher and advisor at Paul Cuffee Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island. Recently, he obtained principal certification. He has practiced the Developmental Designs approach in middle school for eight years.

Posted October 2013

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