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  • Writer's pictureJulien Morizio

When Challenging Becomes Discouraging

Spending time with a student 1-on-1 is a privileged position. Not only do you get to know them as individuals, you also develop a better understanding of how they are as students. One of the ideals that educators must strive for is providing differentiated instruction - a form of education that caters to the diverse needs of every student in the classroom. That can be difficult, given the amount of students and their unique differences.

No matter how well an educator provides differentiated instruction, they might fall short and some students would not advance as much as the rest. That is why parental support and/or tutoring sessions can be so beneficial; whatever learning gap a student may acquire in class could be reduced with direct instruction according to the way in which that particular student learns best.

When we talk about differentiated instruction, we often bring up Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences or different learning styles. But even when we put those theories into practice, we still get calls from parents who express the following two kinds of concerns:

"My child is bored in your class." "My son doesn't feel challenged enough." "My daughter feels stressed about your class." "You give my child too much work."

Essentially, what we do as teachers can be too hard or too easy, depending on the student and their individual skill and tolerance level. A teacher must therefore create moments to be 1-on-1 with their students, while parents and tutors already have this luxury. Only in working individually with students can we truly understand exactly how much we can challenge them so that they could learn as much as they can. This process is like a tug of war or reeling in a fish. It requires a fine balance of push and pull, slack and struggle. It is similar to the stretching of the elastic metaphor used to describe what occurs when students are confused. Too much challenge, and the student becomes stressed out, loses hope, and gives up. Too little challenge, and the student either becomes too self-confident and is set up to fail, or the student simply loses interest and their potential is wasted.

A good way to visualize this process is by keeping Csikszentmihalyi's flow model in mind. According to this model, you achieve a state of flow when you are challenged to the extent at which you are skilled. In a flow state, you are constantly stimulated and you are best positioned to learn and develop. We all experience those moments when we are so engaged in an activity that we do not see the time go by. That is flow; that is when we learn most. It can even be likened to the pursuit of happiness.

Getting students to reach a flow state is a balancing act that can vary from one student to the other and even one day to the next. Sometimes, students need a break and sometimes students are really driven. It is up to the educator to gauge what amount of challenge is appropriate. There are three things an educator can do though to always make the flow state possible. They must always provide clear goals, immediate feedback, and match the difficulty level of the tasks they assign with the skill level they know their student has achieved. As much as possible, remind the student of the progress they have made, share the importance of the growth mindset and of mastery, and demand a little more than you expect. Growth and learning are bound to ensue.



  • Experience

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997, p. 31.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (First Harper Perennial Modern Classics, Ser. Harper perennial modern classics). Harper Perennial.

  • Csikszentmihályi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), "Flow", in Elliot, A. (ed.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698.

  • Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating Students Who Don’t Care. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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