Productive Struggle vs. Frustration

This past Friday, I gave an introductory presentation on the educational ramifications of new brain and psychological research, specifically, Carol Dweck’s Mindset. What came out of the discussion during the session, was that our school already does a fairly good job of inherently implementing most of the underlying themes in Dweck’s research.

What we realized we still needed to work on as a school, was allowing students to struggle productively. Robert Kaplinsky recently posted his ignite talk from the Northwest Mathematics Conference. Kaplinsky gives a very accessible account of the differences between productive struggle and what he calls, “unproductive struggle.” In our school, “unproductive struggle” is frustration.

Frustration is a four letter word in special education classes. Students get supports in class in order to decrease their frustration. This is important because if a student with a disability (or without, really) is frustrated they may shut down, act out, or flee and this can sometimes lead to anger. None of these is a particularly good outcome in any circumstance. So limiting frustration is usually at the top of a special educator’s classroom management to do list.

However, we do not want to limit productive struggle for students with disabilities.

This is important for many reasons. Some are the same as those laid out by Kaplinsky, for instance the incremental gains made by students who are given the opportunity to persevere through problem solving. Other reasons relate to advocating for equity for students with disabilities. If neurotypical students are given the opportunity to productively struggle and students with disabilities are not because of the fear of frustration, are we actually supporting students with disabilities or over-scaffolding to their detriment?

Another important reason to advocate for students with disabilities to productively struggle is their parents. Being a parent of a student with a disability is hard work. So limiting frustration is also at the top of a parent’s to do list. Conversely, fostering and nurturing academic confidence in their students is also at the top of a parent’s to do list. This can lead to praise that resembles that of a fixed mindset, “You’re so good at math!”

I recently got an email from a parent asking if her son was having a hard time in my class. I was surprised, because he hadn’t stood out as a student who was frustrated by the work we are doing. I explained to my student’s mother that the problems we were giving in class were to encourage perseverance and productive struggle, not frustration. Once “productive struggle” was introduced (via Robert’s video) to my student’s mother, she had a much easier time understanding her son’s experience in my class and was better able to reinforce these concepts at home.

What I need from you: How do you differentiate productive struggle from frustration with your students, parents, and colleagues?

10 thoughts on “Productive Struggle vs. Frustration

  1. Pingback: Can you undo a adolescent’s fixed mindset? | Carmel Schettino

  2. Very interesting reflection. The way I talk about productive struggle with students is via the personal trainer metaphor. I tell them that my job is to push them a little farther than they thought they could go. If I help them too much, they don’t get stronger. Works well in my experience. Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks for the comment Robert.

      How would you show a parent or colleague the difference between a student struggling productively in your class and feeling frustrated, which in my opinion is unproductive?


  3. The line between productive and unproductive struggle is a fine one, and it’s different for every individual. Many times it come down to interest. I think Dan has a key here with the concept of intellectual need. When we feel that need, when we’re invested in unpuzzling ourselves, then we’re more willing to struggle.
    In any given class there’s a continuum. What one student finds angrily frustrating another finds boringly simple. And there’s everything in between. Sometimes I stumble upon a task or activity that seems to hit that elusive sweet spot, and sometimes I get close, but I have no formula or template. It’s one of the many challenges of this job.
    I’m not sure how you could show a parent or colleague the difference between productive and unproductive struggle. Maybe a start is to self-reflect on times in our lives when we’ve felt those ways. Possibly have a menu of tasks, problems, puzzles, or activities of varying kind and difficulty and let people choose which one they feel falls into that sweet spot.
    Anyway, great post. This is an important issue to discuss.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Joe.

      I agree that struggle vs. frustration can be a continuum, in which individuals have differing tolerance levels.

      How would you intervene when a colleague or parent views all struggle as frustration and unproductive? How can you get them to value the productivity of the struggle? Or at least begin to see its value?


      • I think the only real way is to try to have them recall an experience where they’ve had a productive struggle. My first thought was professional, like the one I described here:
        But on further thought what about the personal? Building and maintaining healthy relationships with partners, children, parents, friends, and co-workers takes effort. Do we give up working at them at the first sign of a challenge or feeling of frustration? Sometimes we decide it just not worth the effort, but we’d all be very lonely individuals if we didn’t engage in that productive struggle in our personal lives.


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  5. I know this is from over a year ago, but I am still stuck in this never-ending cycle of students with disabilities never getting a chance to struggle. And parents not wanting them to struggle, so they advocate for more services when kids are struggling. In addition, the message to home for homework is – sign it if they work on it for more than 30 minutes. SO…. What are we telling students on IEPs about struggle? Wait long enough and I will help you, or mom can sign it? You don’t need to struggle, I will teach you a procedure…. Messaging to parents and teachers is important. But what if they still don’t buy in?


    • Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for your comment. I think that productive struggle can only be successful within a supportive and safe learning culture. If there is no support from home or the school setting is not a safe space that promotes risk-taking and mistake-making, then productive struggle may always lead to frustration. There is such a fine line between productive struggle and frustration for students with disabilities, it is not surprising that families tend to shy away from it altogether.


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