For struggling learners (SLs), success is often difficult. In many cases, their difficulties emanate from our views of teaching: Here’s an all-too-common example: Just tell them what they need to know. Then let them practice. Correct their work. When necessary, keep telling them to focus and try harder. Then move on. We’ve got a lot to cover.

When done repeatedly, this view undermines critical aspects of motivation and learning. It ignores the consequences of willpower stacking — stacking one taxing and often frustrating task or class on top of another, on top of another, and so on — and the dour expectations of frustration and failure.

By themselves, each can evoke apathy, minimal effort, escape behaviors, and other counterproductive behaviors. This hurts the SLs, their peers, their parents, their teachers, and their schools. Fortunately, well-motivated teachers, support staff, and parents can do much to prevent or improve the situation. Will they always succeed? No. But often they can minimize or eliminate the problems.

The Dour Effect of Willpower Stacking

As Professor Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney wrote in “Willpower,” their New York Times bestseller, “Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued through overuse.”

When teachers and class schedules fall into the trap of willpower stacking, SLs get worn out. They lose their willpower. It vanishes like fog in a strong morning sun. Typically, SLs stop doing what they “didn’t want to do” in the first place. Often, they’ll do whatever they can to avoid the task that “broke the camel’s back.” Simply put, willpower stacking backfires. In the tug-of-war between “I’ll grudgingly do this” versus “Instead, I want to do that” — the typical winner is obvious: “Instead, I want to do that.”

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as “the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.” For SLs, many tasks they’re asked to do are boring, frustrating, or averse to their intrinsic goals. Nevertheless, most will start doing them. They just want to get through the lessons and assignments.

Here, willpower is the grit it takes to focus on and successfully complete tasks they don’t like, aren’t motivated to do, or don’t know how to do. It drains their willpower muscle, like an average 21-year-old would feel after endlessly lifting 200-pound weights: Exhausted, drained, unable to even look at the weights. When drained, SLs will often yawn, look exhausted, daydream, stop working, and start “messing around.”

The key to avoiding “willpower stacking” has two prongs. First and foremost, adjust schedules to avoid “willpower stacking.” If SLs aren’t motivated to complete an activity but will try, don’t follow up with other willpower draining activities. Instead, focus on motivation. Offer one or two activities they like and can succeed on if they make reasonable, non-fatiguing efforts. In other words, let them relax their willpower muscle. Give them ample opportunity to replenish their willpower.

Motivation is the second prong. When SLs are motivated, intrinsically or extrinsically, they rarely need to exert more than a sliver of willpower.

Think of it this way. If you deeply love basketball, could you play it hour after hour? If, however, you believe you’ll always humiliate yourself whenever you play baseball, would you willingly play it? Would you try to play it as often as basketball? Would it give you the energy you get from basketball? Probably not.

To play baseball, you’d quickly exhaust your limited willpower. With basketball, you might expend a sliver of willpower, if any. When motivated, you rarely need to exert willpower.

Dour Expectations of Failure

Expectations fuel effort. When we have positive expectations of success, and success is important to us, odds are we’ll willingly make the effort to succeed. In contrast, dour expectations of success usually dampen efforts. They tend to induce off-task and other counterproductive behaviors.

Does this reflect on SLs only or does it also reflect on me and the many competent professionals with whom I’ve worked? It reflects on most people. Expectations influence everyone.

“It’s impossible to overstate just how important expectation is to the functioning of our brains…. Expectation is both the job description of the brain and its currency. It shapes how we think and move in the world around us. It dictates how we respond to music, how we experience food, how we communicate.”

So, how can we increase the odds that SLs will have realistically optimistic expectations of success? Structure learning activities for success. Structure them so SLs can succeed if they use the right strategies in the right ways, persist, make reasonable and moderate efforts, and learn to attribute success to these elements.

Following are a few lightly edited suggestions that Dr. Patrick McCabe and I discussed in one of our articles on self-efficacy. Simply put, self-efficacy refers to each SL’s and teacher’s beliefs that he (or she) has or doesn’t have the ability to succeed on specific tasks, like decoding unknown words, solving math problems, or helping SLs improve their social-emotional competence.

Gently Challenge SLs Low Self-Efficacy Beliefs. Unfortunately, low self-efficacy impedes academic achievement and, in the long run, creates self-fulfilling prophecies of failure and learned helplessness that can devastate psychological well-being. One way to counter this is to emphasize that you have great confidence that they can successfully complete their task. Show and discuss similar tasks on which they recently succeeded.

Plan Moderately Challenging Tasks. Tasks should not be overly simple — their simplicity and level of challenge should not bore or embarrass SLs. They should not provoke more than passing fear of failure or prove frustrating.

Assign Work at SLs’ Proper Instructional and Independent Levels. In reading, for example, it’s critical to know each SL’s instructional level. At this level, students should quickly and independently recognize 90% to 95% of words in context and understand 70% to 89% of the text. Instructional level assumes that teachers will work with students, teaching vocabulary and comprehension strategies while monitoring and guiding practice and structuring independent practice.

The criterion for independent level material, on the other hand, is quick recognition of 96% or more of the words in context and comprehending at least 90% of what was read. Whenever students work by themselves, such as completing independent seatwork or homework, materials should be at their independent level. In general, assigning reading at the SL’s right instructional and independent levels typically yields comfort, challenge, and realistic expectations of success.

Use Peer Models. A powerful way to help students acquire new skills and strategies is to have them watch other students do well on targeted behaviors. To maximize the effects of modeling on self-efficacy, models should be similar to student observers in ways the observers deem important. Similarities can include age, race, gender, ability, interests, clothing, social circles, and achievement levels.

Peer models can be mastery or coping models. Mastery models flawlessly demonstrate a targeted skill or learning strategy, whereas coping models demonstrate how to learn the skill or strategy and how and when to apply it. For students with low self-efficacy, observing coping models may be particularly effective. By observing how coping models overcome mistakes, struggling learners of similar ability often realize they too can achieve. Many begin to believe, “He is like me. If he can do it, I can.”

The effectiveness of these suggestions are dramatically enhanced by adhering to Professor Albert Bandera’s well-validated advice: “People who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to master given activities are likely to mobilize greater effort and sustain it than if they harbor self-doubt and dwell on personal deficiencies when problems arise.” Thus, it’s important for teachers and parents to focus SLs’ attention on their successes by showing and telling them that they have been and will continue to be successful.

Avoidable Struggles

Teachers, support staff, and parents have numerous opportunities to avoid willpower stacking and to encourage SLs to have realistic expectations of success and satisfaction. With each success and a growing understanding that their actions contributed mightily to their successes, most SLs will strengthen their future expectations of success. It’s doable, it’s free, it’s worth the effort.

Helpful Resources

Margolis, H. and McCabe, P., 2006. Improving Self-Efficacy and Motivation: What to Do, What to Say. Intervention in School and Clinic (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/10534512060410040401)

Margolis, H. and McCabe, P., 2010. Self-Efficacy: A Key to Improving the Motivation of Struggling Learners (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10459880309603362)

McCabe, P., Enhancing the Self-Efficacy of Struggling Readers. The Clearing House (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00098650109599235)

Vance, E. 2016. Suggestible You. National Geographic. (A helpful resource for understanding expectations; https://www.amazon.com/Suggestible-You-Curious-Science-Transform-ebook/dp/B01C1LB09U/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Suggestible+You&qid=1585146705&s=books&sr=1-20.).