Dealing with overly dependent students

Do your students want to be spoon-fed? Are they constantly demanding your help, calling out your name over and over again? If so, is it possible that you’ve unwittingly contributed to their sense of helplessness? The real problem, matter-of-factly, isn’t students’ knee-jerk requests for help, but rather teachers obliging them.

Today’s kids may be more helpless than at any time in history. They’re sheltered from hurt, shielded from risk, and are expected to do less on their own, lest they face the horror of failure. Literary, they are taught to depend on teachers for solutions to the simplest of problems. The key, then, to students unlearning helplessness is teachers relearning helpfulness.

This starts with a shift from the teacher as the fountain of information to the teacher as the facilitator of learning. Teachers should provide students access to the resources they need to be successful, and empower them with the skills they need to use those resources to support self-directed learning. An overly dependent student can command so much of your attention that you have little time left for other students. This consequently limits his involvement with his peers, thus minimizing opportunities to develop essential social skills and stifling his social development.

The goal in working with an overly dependent student is to help him become more self-reliant and to develop more trust in his own judgment. Normally, they are reluctant to think, make decisions or even talk for themselves. Instead of looking inward for answers, they tend to look to you for support and assistance- so much so that they risk becoming your constant companion: spending more time at your desk than at his own, as he bombards you with a blizzard of questions or simply hovers by your side. It then requires that you give him attention in ways that foster his independence by communicating to him your expectations and setting firm limits on your interactions instead of interacting with him in ways that foster his dependence.

Another thing is to try to lessen the student’s reliance on others by helping him build confidence in his own judgment and ability to solve problems. If he asks you a question, have him share his ideas first, and then find a way to support what he says. If he struggles to answer a question, encourage him to figure out the answer while giving him some hints and leading him toward the correct answer. If he has a conflict with another student, encourage both students to solve the problem themselves. Subject the student to the five-minute rule: tell the student that he must work on a task for five minutes before he may ask you a question.

It might also help to identify what’s behind the student’s clinginess. Some children are temperamentally shy and clingy, while others might be reacting to a specific problem. If you notice a child becoming more dependent on you, talk with him and with his parents to find out if something in particular is upsetting him.

Ultimately we need to empower students so they know how to advocate for themselves. We do this by offering them opportunities to be in charge of their learning while giving them room to ask for help where needed. Explicitly teaching reflection and modeling the behavior, is a positive way to ensure that all students do learn to ask for help when they need it, but to try on their own first. After working alone, they should reach out to peers and then beyond that the teacher is available for help and always will be.

The writer is a Language Consultant