How to Teach a Frustrated Student

The first thing to do when teaching a frustrated student is to listen to, and acknowledge, their frustrations. Let him or her vent a little. If you're working with young children, they probably won't even realize or communicate that they are frustrated. Therefore, the first thing to do is say "you're very frustrated with learning ________ aren't you?" If you are in a group situation, take the student aside to talk to him or her about it so he or she doesn't become embarrassed.

One of the best things you can do when teaching frustrated students is to watch them one-on-one in academic action and observe every little detail when they think, write, and speak. Often, students are lacking very particular, previous basic skills. By watching them work, you can identify where they are going wrong and notice common patterns. For instance, I have tutored many algebra students whose frustration stemmed from an inability to deal with negative numbers. Once this problem was corrected, the rest of the material became much easier for them to interpret. Isolating and rehearsing small, specific skills can open a fast-track door to understanding.

When dealing with a frustrated student, it is important to give positive reinforcement for small triumphs. Don't let them get caught in an "all" or "nothing" assessment of their capabilities. Grades and teacher praise in class do not give them a detailed picture of how they are doing. This causes them to jump to the conclusion that "they just can't get it." Use meaningful praise that not only tells them they did a good job, but gives feedback as to their understanding. For instance, you could say "Wow, _______ was a great pick, your word choice is really improving."

Don't let a frustrated students fool you or themselves into thinking that they know more than they do. Many times, a student will have "moved on" months earlier (without realizing it) when they didn't get a specific skill. If a student is struggling, they might resist going back to basic techniques, but you should test them on, and watch out for, these skills anyway.

When teaching a frustrated student, you should strive to be his or her guide and always make a point of talking as though the two of you are a team tackling the problem together. Frustrated students feel lost and left-behind and need someone "at their side" instead of looking down to them.

As the guide, you should encourage the student to trust you. He or she may be frustrated because of inadequate or mismatched teaching styles and be ready to shut you out before you even begin explaining the material. Reassure him or her that you will always be able to give another explanation or example if he or she doesn't understand the first ones. The goal is to reassure the frustrated student and develop his or her patience so that he or she can calmly and openly listen to you.

Make sure to explain "why" and "how" for absolutely everything. Explain why you are working together, how it will help, why certain techniques are important, why he or she will need to know certain concepts for life or college. A student that is frustrated needs to feel "in the loop." So, never forget to include age appropriate and child-specific "whys."

Try new teaching techniques. Switch from verbal to visual explanations or vise versa. You might also try an interactive game. The student might be stuck in a rut of teacher, parent, or self-explanation that isn't going anywhere. Therefore, do something that will shed new light on the material.

Finally, make sure you admit your own mistakes. If you gloss over wrong or inaccurate things that you have said because you are afraid of looking fallible, it will contribute to the student's frustration and confusion and lessen his or her trust in you. So briefly apologize (yes, apologize, it is important for maintaining trust and partnership). Give a visual and start over by saying something like "We're going to wipe clean what I just said."


Thank you for this article. I have been experiencing these issues with my summer tutoring. I am not new to tutoring, just new to dealing with younger students. I will try out your suggestions at my next sessions. Thanks again!
I have read your commentary on "teaching to a frustrated child/person" and find your strategies to be quite on target. I am making my observation not from a formal theory to your approach but rather from a personal kind of "down in the rut", participatory sort of experience. I applaud your insight into such students, for as a population they are generally the ones that exhibit a troublesome kind of behavior in class, and forging this understanding between a "feeling of inability" with manifestations in "irrational outpourings" is something that has to be dealt with using several methods depending on what you as a teacher/facilitator plan as an outcome for the success of your class that day. As the instructor/teacher/facilitator, one has to have for instance a) the student b) the rest of the class c) the total environment .... all in ones mind, and the approach must preserve the efficacy of the entire process for learning. I'm afraid I could ramble on ..... I thank you very much.

Your comments are very much on the mark.

I have spent years interacting with entry level and management level employees, training and assisting their journey through the corporate maze for a major outsourcing company.

I also used to sponsor young children through a "Big Brother" organization called "Children's Village.

I have discovered that the way to approach many frustrated people is to let then know you too share many of their feelings and frustrations.

Another factor is as you say let them know when they are doing well. One of the things to express is that we all, including myself, have our strengths and weaknesses.

We all have, no matter how young or old we are areas in which we can improve our skills.

The most useful approach is to engage children or adults in conversation about the subject at hand. Talk to them, talk with them; never down to them.

Engage people with a high five when it feels right or maybe a pat on the back. You are equal with them.

Always follow up with a test, conversation, whatever you can come up with to measure their skill level and actual knowledge of the subject.

I too could go on and on, it's such a fulfilling experience when the response is a positive one.

This was very well said. One of the issues a lot of teachers experience with students (especially students with disabilities) is the power struggle. It is important that teachers, tutors, and substitutes realize that "explaining why" can be the difference between an explosive moment from a student and a student who opens up to new learning. Tutors and teachers are "servants" and hand feeding any information that does not come easily is our job. Power struggles only arise when adults believe that explaining the details to children somehow removes their “position” in the classroom. There is no position; we are there to teach, not "rule."

Thank you, Kathryn, for this well-written and helpful article. I am a new tutor and know that i't likely I will encounter a frustrated student at some point.

Thanks again.

I work on a daily basis with higher aptitude special needs middle school students and find they are frequently frustrated. The special ed teacher for whom I work, has taught me to apply some of the ideas and techniques you have recommended. I have found they increase both my confidence as a facilitator and the student's comfort in the our relationship...Good stuff.
When recently meeting a new tutor student and parents at their home for the first time, the 11 year old boy collapsed on his couch, covered his head with a pillow and refused to come out. His father, mother, sister were all there. Maybe I should have run away. I asked the family to give us some space. With verbal coaxing he did emerge for brief bits. Should I return?

I have found this to be exactly the problem with most student failures. There is something misunderstood in material that came *before* the material they are struggling with. They may have a completely misunderstood word, or they did not learn (or mislearned) a concept and are now trying to do a task that applies that concept. It is nearly always this.

I've seen children brighten up immensely when they learn whatever is blocking them. Imagine... students trying to learn algebra when they are unclear on the word "vary" and "variable"... and think the teacher is saying "very"!!! I've seen this specific misunderstanding repeatedly in pre-algebra classes. Or how about a student I was tutoring who, when asked to divide a diameter of 7 by 2 to get the radius, told me, "you can't divide 7 by 2. 7 is odd!"

Things like this are why these students need us. We don't laugh. We simply show them what they need to know, and let their ability free.

--Louise K., Merrimack, NH

This is in response to SM. Your comments, too, are very well said and demonstrate a profound self awareness.

In general with many relationships competition has it's place. However, competing with your students, for egotistical reasons has no place in the relationship.

The most important "ELEMENT" of any relationship, personal or professional is "TRUST". I believe trust must be earned; the "old fashioned way".

That means thought must be given to your words and actions in order to reinforce the student's trust and confidence.

Bill, if you can get an agreement with the parents that the student and you should be audience-free, that would help a lot. This child sounds like he has had a lot of pressure on him! Usually they come around, when you remain positive, gentle, and non-threatening.

The young lady who could not divide odd numbers by 2, mentioned in my prior comment... the first session I had with her she was SO angry with Math. I said, "Math is like a big giant mean SPIDER! for you." She exclaimed, "YES!!!" I drew a spider on a piece of paper, labeled it "math", said "we're gonna stomp on this spider." and then put it on the floor, and she STOMPED on it.

She really needed to. We worked together for the entire school year after that. Her math grade moved from failing to the B range.

With humor, caring, insight, and acceptance we can be the life raft for these students who are failing, misunderstanding, angry, frustrated, and sometimes hiding.

--Louise K. Merrimack, NH

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