Afraid to Learn

Originally published on

Afraid to Learn

How do you react to a situation that really makes you think? As a student, what was your response to a challenging math problem or an essay question? As an adult, what happens when you get a call from a co-worker with a problem that needed to be solved three hours ago?


Let’s start with the story of “Tom,” one of my students while I was teaching at a special education school in California focusing on students with behavioral and learning disabilities. Tom would go to the playground fence when he was angry, sometimes to just stand there and sometimes to kick the fence and shout. Fortunately, the day I first met Tom was a “slumping day” since I was about to tell him that he was being transferred into my class.

Sure, we ended up back at the fence several times over the next few months, but as the year wore on, the frustration response subsided. He began to learn that learning means stepping into the unknown and feeling a little bit of uncertainty, discomfort, and, yes, frustration. Embracing the challenge of learning led Tom to discovery and knowledge. Rejecting the challenge lead Tom back to the fence.

Tom’s behavior was tied directly to his learning. Some learners take a breath and approach a new problem calmly, logically or creatively. Other learners feel panicky, defeated, or, like Tom, overwhelmed with frustration.

Gauging your learning “fortitude

Learning fortitude develops early.

And here’s the secret: When learning in an environment that doesn’t cater to your learning style and makes learning a chore, low learning fortitude developments. When learning is an adventure that encourages you to utilize your learning strengths, you develop strong learning fortitude.

Asking a frustrated child to think about other ways to look at a problem gives them a chance to think critically. I’ve had kids solve the infamous “two trains traveling in opposite directions” question with pictures, not mathematical formulas. Giving a student the chance to come to a solution with the aid of their own strengths gives them a future of critical thinking.

Telling a child, “Sit there and don’t get up until you solve the problem,” leads to frustration, panic, resentment and defeat.

How can you pump up your own learning fortitude?

Examine how you feel when you encounter a tough situation. If you feel like running from the problem, take a moment away from the task and ask yourself, “How can I come at this in another way?” You won’t be running learning marathons overnight, but your adult self-awareness will allow you to step back and look at emotional reactions maturely. Controlling your emotional reaction to a learning problem is a great exercise to increase mental fortitude.

So, what happened to Tom? After a year in our classroom, he was hands-down our best-behaved, most curious student. After that year, he left our school and never looked back. He finished high school and is now a productive member of the real world. As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything else.

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