Why do we let kids give up?

IquitI hate it when a student drops my class.

At my high school, the beginning of the year is a revolving door of adds and drops, as students try out different classes and re-evaluate the schedules they selected six months earlier, when they were feeling ambitious.

This system has a lot of drawbacks — class sizes end up very unbalanced, and it’s hard to create a classroom culture with effective norms and clear expectations when everything is in flux — but we are very customer-focused, and we are sympathetic to kids who realize they have taken on too much.

Unfortunately, this sympathy sometimes results in discouraging a growth mindset.

Here’s what I mean:

In the spring, teachers and deans encourage students to take an appropriately challenging schedule. For some kids, that means saying, “Don’t take five AP classes, take three.” For other kids, that means saying, “You should try one honors or AP course — I know you can do it!”

Many of the students getting the latter message are teens from underrepresented groups, kids who often get left out of the college-bound culture (or, let’s be honest, the college prep track) for a host of socio-cultural reasons, even though they are ready for more rigorous work.

We want these students in our advanced classes.

But when fall comes, the reality of advanced classes becomes too much for many of our students — not just for disadvantaged kids, but kids across the board. They suddenly realize they will have to change their work habits to earn the As and Bs they are used to, and they panic and drop.

And we let them.

Now I don’t object when a student with multiple AP classes realizes they need a more reasonable load, or when students who don’t have time to sleep between homework, sports and work decide they need a break. Figuring out this balance is part of growing up (and staying sane).

What bothers me is when students who are not overextended drop just because they think a class will be “hard,” because an A won’t come easily this time.

We say we are teaching kids perseverance and grit. We say we want students to change their minds about “failure,” to see it as an opportunity for growth. We say we want all of our students — not just the high-achieving, already college-bound, middle class ones — to be challenged and ready for post-secondary work.

But when is that supposed to happen, if they quit — and we let them — just because something seems hard?

When students come to me with a drop slip for AP Psych or AP Micro, I basically beg them to stick it out. You can do it, I tell them. You’re going to learn valuable skills for the future. I will help you. Everything will be easier after this. It will be worth it.

I think what I’m saying is true. I saw my own children go through this process — encountering their first really difficult class and learning how to study, how to learn, how to persevere. I know this was one of the most valuable lessons they learned in school. The struggle was worth it.

But I can’t make other kids do it. I can’t even make them try. All I can do is plead and try to persuade, and too often that doesn’t work. If we are serious about instilling a growth mindset and grit, we need to stop letting kids give up on themselves.

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