I read an interesting article recently about over-parenting, where children are made helpless because of too much support from their parents (and teachers). After I read the article, I remember this story from many years ago, shared by a colleague of mine.

"We had a kid whose mom used to dress him all the time, even though he was in sixth grade. She also used to feed him, and as a result, he didn’t know how to use a fork and spoon himself, which was a bit problematic at camp. Fortunately, he figured it out fairly quickly because there was no way we were going to literally spoon-feed him."

"One day, we were playing a relay race where one person would put on a shirt, run to the other side of the field, and pass the shirt to the next member of the team, who would put it on, and then ran back, and so on. When this kid’s turn came up, he ran to the other end of the field and raised his arms up, waiting for his teammate to put on the shirt for him."

This raises an important question for me; in what ways do we as teachers over-coach our students?

I have implemented some changes in my grade 12 math class in an effort to help build independence in my students, and the students at first feel a bit weird about these small changes, but then they adjust to them, and over time, they appear to become more independent.

  1. I tell my senior students that they don’t need to ask me for permission to use the bathroom, they should just wait for a sensible time, and tell me where they are going. If I still taught middle school students, I would do this with them as well, and take the rare times when they abused the responsibility as opportunities to teach self-discipline.
  2. I don’t assign specific problems from the textbook. I don’t even tell students where in the textbook the problems are (most of the time). If our students are unable to self-select challenging problems for themselves, and unable to find those problems in a textbook written for them in mind, then I certainly feel like we have failed them as educators.
  3. I stopped answering all of their questions. Most of the time, I respond with a question, and try and move them toward being able to resolve all of the simple problems they run into on a daily basis.


  • Jim Doherty wrote:


    I absolutely agree with #1 and #3 on the list above. In fact, to #3 I’d add that I do my very best to never give one word answers even when I do answer a question. People almost always deserve more than a simple YES or NO – they deserve some explanation and our students are people. However, I worry about #2. I have an idea that might be a happy meeting point. As a math teacher, I think part of my job is to dissect our math books. They have an overwhelming amount of information in them. My job is to help guide the kids a bit and what I am going to start doing next year is to indicate in each section a small, core set of exercises as well as a set of suggested additional practice problems. The students who are determined to do the least they can and the students who quickly master a skill or idea have a smaller set of problems to ponder. The student who feels she needs extra practice has some guidance about where to best find that extra practice.

    Is this too much hand holding in your opinion?

  • David Wees wrote:

    What I try to do is guide the students who need the guidance, rather than scaffold the experience for all of them. Life is full of complex bits of information. If we solve all of these problems for students, they never develop the skill of solving problems for themselves. Yes, textbooks are complicated, but unless I give students the opportunity (particularly in 12th grade) to navigate textbooks without my support, I will never know if they can do it without me.

  • Jim Doherty wrote:


    Maybe I am underestimating them, but the raft of problems in every math textbook makes it difficult – even for teachers, I’d argue – to sift through to find meaningful and helpful problems.

  • David Wees wrote:

    It took about 2 months for my students to get to the stage where I felt they could choose problems on their own successfully. The problems in the textbook we use tend to be mostly "thinking" problems rather than "do the single step" problems, so that may be a difference as well. Maybe you could try it? Worst case scenario: you would need to help some students select appropriate problems.

    I also find that students will choose a problem for which they don’t have all of the background, and then go back and reread the chapter to find the piece they are missing, which is in itself, a valuable activity that I want to encourage.

  • Farrah Deese wrote:

    Hey, my name is Farrah, and I am in the class EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I agree that teachers do not need to over coach or baby their students, but I don’t think that I would use all of your changes in order to make my students more independent. I feel like not telling the students where they can find problems to practice in the book is somewhat discouraging to them, and I think that most students who might want to practice more would give up looking for the correct ones to try. When I was in high school most of the students in my class would have given up looking before they found the correct problems, and I think that the teacher’s job to do what they can to encourage all of their students. I am not saying that this method is wrong, but I just feel like the students could be using the time they waste on looking for the right pages on actually working on the problems.

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