How to Tell When Learning Struggles Are Productive or Destructive


In their book How to Support Struggling Students, Robyn Jackson and Claire Lambert identify clues that mark the distinction between destructive and productive struggles in learning:

A destructive struggle A productive struggle
  • Leads to frustration.                                    
  • Leads to understanding.
  • Makes learning goals feel hazy
    and out of reach.
  • Makes learning goals feel attainable
    and effort seem worthwhile.
  • Feels fruitless.
  • Yields results.
  • Leaves students feeling abandoned
    and on their own.
  • Leads students to feelings of empowerment
    and efficacy.
  • Creates a sense of inadequacy.
  • Creates a sense of hope.


A destructive struggle needs immediate intervention, which requires that that teachers have a plan to address it. Plus, teachers have to understand why the student is struggling with completing a task or understanding a concept. For example, to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion, a student with poor reading or note-taking skills may have difficulty making sense of information from a textbook. Another student, on the other hand, may have difficulty grasping abstract concepts like force, mass, weight, and acceleration, which would require a different intervention. A third student might fall behind in the same unit simply because he lacks time-management skills.

“In a destructive struggle, kids have run out of strategies; they give up; they put their heads down; they get frustrated or angry,” Jackson explains. Sometimes, such students have relied too much on the teacher’s help, so when the teacher is not around, they don’t know what to do, Jackson says.

In a productive struggle, on the other hand, students grapple with the issues and are able to come up with a solution themselves, developing persistence and resilience in pursuing and attaining the learning goal or understanding, says Jackson. In productive struggles, kids have developed the necessary strategies for working through something difficult. They can also take a teacher’s suggestions for help and run with them.

How can you tell if a student’s learning struggles are productive or destructive?


  1. My students are only 5 years old yet they do struggle and give up very easy even if they are drawing. I try to encourage them with positive feedback saying they are doing great and as long as they try it is ok, however it is not enough. I like the concept of “destructive” and “productive”. The term destructive does not sound nice so as a teacher, we would want to stray awary from it. However the term productive sounds positive and is something that we as teachers should aim for. Just thinking about the struggles the children are facing into these terms sets it apart very clear for me. I will think of the struggles that I am facing and my students are facining to try to make it a productive struggle and not a destructive one.

  2. As a principal, I have often seen our kindergarten students struggle productively. One example is in writing when the teacher sets, together with the individual child, a specific learning target for each child. These 5 year olds not only are willing to work until they reach the target, they are able to tell a class visitor exactly what their target is and what they are doing to reach it. Another example is when I have seen teachers pose the learning as a problem of discovery, such as what are the attributes of geometric shapes. When presented as a riddle or a puzzle, our 5 year olds are very willing to engage and struggle until they have it mastered.


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