Virtual teammates, I hear you. Our virtual community stretches far across the country, and I feel honored to hear from many of you in times of excitement and in need. Recently, I’m seeing a pattern. Teachers are noticing high levels of low frustration tolerance.
Baseline: Low frustration tolerance isn’t uncommon in the elementary grades (or, let’s face it, in adulthood). But, frustration tolerance is a complex skill. It is emotional and academic. And the source of frustration can vary wildly. However, in these complex years, more and more kids are struggling, with so many peers, teachers, and caregivers struggling along with them.
I will not pretend that I am currently in the classroom (I am on an extended maternity leave). However, I am here to share what has worked for me before and let you take away any nuggets that you find helpful. You may not know this, but most of my teaching career was in a school dedicated to supporting kids with emotional-regulation difficulties. So as I continued to hear about the challenges facing so many teachers on the frontlines, I want to extend techniques I found helpful to support high-need classrooms.
That’s why today’s blog is all about how to support your students as they build frustration tolerance. I’ll walk you through three steps to support struggling learners with frustration tolerance. Ready? Let’s dive in.
Identify the Source of Low Frustration Tolerance
One mistake I made early in my career was assuming I knew why kids were frustrated.
I thought I could magically know why a child behaved a certain way. After all, I have my own experiences with low frustration tolerance. I could identify a few reasons a child might be frustrated. So, I thought I could figure it out– quick and simple.
Yes, I correctly identified the source of low frustration tolerance sometimes. Other times, I escalated the problem by assuming a child felt a certain way.
Why is it essential to identify the correct source of low frustration?
Think of it like an IEP or 504. At first, we notice that a child struggles in one area or another. Afterward, we can try many strategies to support a learner without an IEP. A few of those strategies may work! However, it will take extra time and effort to identify the specific need without the tools of an evaluator. That leads to an IEP.
An IEP helps us target specific academic need(s).
Low frustration tolerance stems from emotional and academic roadblocks. And frustration tolerance is a learned and practiced skill, just like ELA and math skills. We need to know the child’s specific roadblocks to address the problem successfully.
That looks different for every child.
How to Identify the Source
As I said, low frustration tolerance is a complex emotional hurdle in the classroom. The tolerance skill itself is a combination of emotional regulation when encountering a problem and academic confidence and perseverance.
The first step to identifying the source of low frustration tolerance? Identify the domain in which low frustration tolerance occurs. I break it down into three categories:
- Academic struggle
- Social struggle
When does the student visibly show their low frustration tolerance? How do they show it? When do they seek out a safe space in the classroom?
Next, engage in close observation. Once you’ve identified the general times and activities in which a student exhibits low frustration tolerance, keep your eyes peeled. You will learn a lot from jotting down quick notes about their behavior.
- What specific activity sparked behaviors associated with low frustration tolerance?
- At what point in the activity did the child give up?
- Were there outside forces (another student taunting, etc) that escalated the child’s frustration?
Finally, try to talk to your student about what you notice. Ask open-ended questions that help you learn more about their feelings at the moment and how they notice their own levels of frustration.
Helpful questions include:
- How did that activity go for you today?
- When you got to [insert moment when frustration escalated], what did you notice in your body?
- How would you remake this activity?
- What feels helpful to you when things feel hard? How can I help make that possible in our classroom?
Note: I highly recommend that you wait to ask these questions and reflect on the moment of low frustration tolerance until the child has fully cooled down. Otherwise, you might hear answers like, “I don’t know” and “It’s not fun.” And, in some cases, you won’t be able to have a productive conversation with your student. It might touch on their nerves a little too much. That’s okay. You can keep trying and rely on your observations.
Focus on What You Can and Cannot Control
Low frustration tolerance is an emotional beast. Many factors affect a child’s ability to persevere in the face of challenges. And teachers can only address so many in the classroom.
Think about the factors you CAN control.
- Classroom environment – Is it overstimulating the student?
- Activities – Are they beyond the student’s Zone of Proximal Development?
- Your reaction – Are you reacting in frustration?
Beyond your scope of control becomes an investigation into and collaboration with the child’s family, other teachers and peers at school, and home life.
Reshape YOUR Mindset Around Low Frustration Tolerance
Remember how one of the factors you CAN control is your own reaction? That is crucial.
Honestly, I didn’t realize my many deeply engrained ideas around low frustration tolerance until a colleague mentioned her own struggle one day in a faculty meeting.
As adults, we come with our own baggage. That’s okay! But, when we aim to support student growth around frustration, we not only need to be an example of high frustration tolerance, we also need to examine our own biases around it.
One of the absolute hardest things I’ve had to do: Relinquish all expectations around frustration tolerance.
If you’re a regular follower, you know that class expectations are an integral component of my classroom management. I strongly believe in co-creating a set of behavioral agreements and eliciting student ownership over them.
However, sometimes you need to let go of expectations.
Think of frustration tolerance like you would ELA and math skills. Each student enters your classroom at a different point in their literacy and mathematics learning journey. Over the first six weeks of school (and beyond), you evaluate student needs. You don’t just expect students to know how to do each academic activity.
Students with low frustration tolerance need the same grace you would give to a student struggling with computation. You can set a goal. But, you can’t expect a student with low frustration tolerance to meet it without support and practice.
Go Backward Before Going Forward
When supporting students with low frustration tolerance, there is one thing you can expect: Your student might go backward before going forward. In other words, their frustration tolerance might get lower before it gets higher.
Frustration tolerance is often different than other skills you practice in the classroom. When you teach a spelling pattern, one of two things will occur. A student with either learn the spelling pattern or won’t. In the process, it is highly unlikely they will forget spelling patterns they knew before you began.
However, building students up from low frustration tolerance directly correlates with pushing emotional boundaries and emotions. I am not saying you should force students into very frustrating experiences. In fact, please don’t! However, for students to learn how to work through frustration, they will need to feel frustrated.
So, they will. That’s okay.
But with that frustration, you might also notice that, at first, their low frustration tolerance gets even lower. Students notice when they repeatedly run into challenges. And, at first, they might be triggered more by it.
After all, frustration tolerance is deeply connected to confidence. When a child feels deeply confident, they can withstand setbacks with more ease. For example, if a student feels “good at math,” they might (not always) be more apt to work through tough problems.
The good news: There are ways to ease students into building frustration tolerance. I’ll go into detail below.
Finally, I have one more piece of advice regarding your mindset: Avoid comparison.
In many ways, teachers are trained to compare students. We collect data and compare student abilities to understand the effectiveness of our teaching and the strengths and challenges of students.
This is not helpful when it comes to teaching frustration tolerance.
Every student will build frustration tolerance at their own pace. Just because Lila seems to have grown her ability to persevere in facing frustrating challenges doesn’t mean Luke will simultaneously.
Building frustration tolerance isn’t linear.
Rethink Your Approach to Individuals with Low Frustration Tolerance
Confession Time: I used to think that the best way to support students with low frustration tolerance was to just thrust them into challenging situations. In retrospect, what was I thinking?
Maybe this has been your approach too.
Support Small Wins
One of the most successful approaches to building frustration tolerance in your students is celebrating the little things. In other words: Get ready to observe every small win.
Starting from a place of zero expectations, any win becomes a celebratory win. Here are some examples:
- A student finishes a math problem with or without asking for help.
- A student reads a page of text without stopping.
- A student recognizes that they are having trouble with a spelling activity.
- A student completes a full activity without giving up (it doesn’t matter if the answers are correct).
- A student frustrated by writing writes a few words, phrases, or sentences in the math journal.
There are many little wins throughout the day. These are examples of small, sometimes overlooked wins.
Acknowledging those little wins will help build student confidence and encourage them to keep trying!
Keep It Authentic
Important: Little wins should be authentic wins. Yes, they are small. But, they are also real.
Before complimenting a student on a small win, I ask myself this question: Am I happy or proud that they did what they did?
Often, the answer is yes. Especially if I reframe my mindset to avoid comparison to other kids. I’m not looking to see a child doing something “impressive” compared to other students. Instead, I’m looking to see if they completed or pushed through something that, at one point, they wouldn’t.
Meet Students at Their Independent Level (or Below)
As teachers, we are often taught to give students activities and challenges that meet them at their “proximal zone of development.” That means it is either at their exact level of ability or just above it.
While that works for some students, it won’t support students with low frustration tolerance.
In my experience, when you start just below the independent level of a student, one of two things will happen:
- They will say, “This is easy,” and ask for something more challenging.
- They will feel really good about their abilities.
Either response is a teacher (and student) win!
Starting from below their independent level helps build a foundation of confidence. After a few successful attempts, it is time to very slowly increase difficulty.
As you increase the difficulty of a student’s challenge, you’ll eventually reach a crucial point: Their personal frustration point. That’s okay! Ultimately, we want to push students to reach and work past their frustration points.
Here’s the magic ticket.
I have one final tip to build frustration tolerance in your students: Used controlled choice.
Before I dive into what “controlled choice” looks like versus other forms of choice, let me explain something.
In addition to confidence, another emotional process supports students as they push through a frustrating task: buy-in. Students have a much higher tolerance for challenges when they feel agency and control over their activity.
Controlled choice is a way to scaffold that process for students.
Controlled choice is when you create very specific boundaries on the choices a child can make, essentially maintaining your teacher-control while giving the student some control over their learning as well.
- Give the student a few (limited) options within a bounded set of choices.
- The student can pick from those options (not another option).
By creating a limited set of options we:
- Limit feelings of overwhelm
- Maintain and provide materials that will target the specific skill or concept the struggling student needs to address
- Increase student investment
- Allow students to feel a sense of control
Controlled choice can be used in all subjects. It is my go-to way for exciting and supporting struggling mathematicians in my classroom.
In math, a controlled choice often includes choosing the type of manipulative they get to use. I give them 2-3 options, including some special (rare) manipulatives that target their learning need.
Controlled choice takes many forms in literacy. In reading, I often give students book options based on topics they love. I’ll take a few extra minutes to tailor the student’s choices.
Students struggling with low frustration tolerance can feel like a huge hurdle in the classroom. There isn’t a quick fix. However, with patience and guidance, I’ve seen numerous students grow in their ability to withstand and persevere in the face of challenges– not to mention develop confidence across subjects along the way! As always, I love hearing from you. Please let me know if you have other tips and tricks to support building frustration tolerance in kids.