With Enough Help

I said something the other day that I didn’t think about a whole lot before I said it (surprise).

I have a student who is convinced that she can’t do anything. She’s had so much trouble in school for so long that she’s playing a giant game of catch-up. The other day she came to me with some homework.

“I can’t do this.” She told me.

I’ve heard that before, but I work through errorless learning. It’s a fancy term I picked up in grad school. Errorless learning. It’s the idea that as long as you have enough help, anyone can do anything. The most help, or support, is called a ‘full physical prompt’ or ‘hand-over-hand.’ It’s exactly what it sounds like. For instance, if I’m teaching a non-verbal student to touch the “hello” button on his iPad, I would gently hold or guide his hand and lower his finger until it touched and activated the button. He did it– with enough help. That motor plan gets mapped somewhere in his brain, and eventually he’ll do it by himself. Or at least that’s the goal.

The help I give comes mostly in the form of verbal (words) or visual (pictures or pointing) cues, prompts, and guiding questions. And it fades–meaning the less help students need, the less I give them. I want my students to work as independently as they can. I can’t however, let them sink. If they sink, I’ve lost them. Their confidence and motivation plummets, they don’t have a reason to try anymore.

It’s a balance. And this student came in the other day–sunk. She’d hit the bottom. No classes made sense. Not one class. Can you imagine nothing making sense? Like having all these puzzle pieces, but none of them fit together.

I told her, “I want you to change what you said. I want you to change it to ‘I can do anything–with enough help.'”

So I got down on the floor in my work pants and my Dansko clogs and said, “I can’t do a real push up. Watch.”

She watched me dip into the push-up, grunt, and wilt to the floor. I looked up at her and corrected myself. “If I told you I couldn’t do a push-up and never tried again, would I ever be able to do a push-up?”


“So watch. I can do a push-up–with enough help. The help comes from my knees.”

I propped myself up on my knees and did a push-up. And then I did another. I did five before I stopped.

“Right now I can’t do a regular push-up, but I can do five with help from my knees. When I get stronger and could do 30 with help from my knees, I bet I could do a regular one.”

I stood up and sat back down at my rainbow table. She looked down at her worksheet. I told her, “My job at school is to be your knees. You can get through any assignment, any project, any test–with enough help.”

She looked at her worksheet and read the first question out loud. And before the end of the session, she had finished half of the questions.

Later on that night, I headed over to the box. I’d looked at the workout of the day and saw that it was a partner workout. This just means that everything is split in half, or however the partners agree to split up the tasks. The workout was 3 rounds of: 40 handstand pushups, 30 burpees, and a 200m partner carry. In other words: 120 handstand pushups, 90 burpees, and 200 meter partner carry total between the two partners

Holy. Cats.

Let’s refer back. I can’t even do a regular push-up. And I have to do 60 upside down? Then 45 burpees? And then carry my partner 100 meters? That’s if we split everything evenly between us. My partner was going to be sorry. They were going to have to take all of the handstand pushups. And they could go ahead and carry me the whole 200m if they weigh any more than 150lbs. I could do 90 burpees if I had to.

I showed up as the 5:00pm class was finishing up. The workout looked about as terrible as I had imagined. And no one else showed up after me. It was just me. No partner. Great! I thought. Different workout! No. No, it was the same workout. ‘Scaling’ is the fancy crossfit word for ‘help.’ And man, was this thing scaled. My coach had to continue scaling it down as I was doing the workout. But I finished–with that help. I worked just as hard as everyone else even with that help. I felt proud when I was done. I felt tired, but so proud. I deserved that feeling.

I think more than anything, all of my students deserve that feeling, too.

2 thoughts on “With Enough Help”

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