By Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts
Our toddler’s favorite show is Peppa Pig. It’s a British cartoon starring a sweet pig
and her good-natured family. While at times we wish that screen time equaled zero
in our home, if our kid is going to watch TV, at least he is learning what “petrol” is
and that things can go on “for ages.” That counts for something, right?
While Peppa is largely an amusingly benign presence, there is one thing she has
taught our son that we are fighting against tooth and nail. “That’s impossible,” Peppa
says when she faces difficulty – and now our son does, too.
“That’s impossible,” when a pea falls off his fork.
“That’s impossible,” when his arm gets stuck in his sleeve.
“That’s impossible,” when he trips on his own feet and takes a tumble.
So, yes, it’s mostly adorable. But then there are the bigger things: trying to ride a
scooter, drawing a smiley face, getting his coat on. We may be falsely blaming the
pig, but we can see that we clearly need to help our son move through difficulty and
get to the other side. Right now, he is very quick to feel frustrated. Very quick to say
We know how he feels. We remember giving up the following when we were
growing up: the viola, gymnastics, swimming, math, making friends. Why? It just
seemed too hard, too complicated, and we didn’t have all the tools or the help we
Our students often feel the same way. We may think we are presenting books, skills
and curriculum that is within our students’ reach, but when we see a lack of
engagement or struggle – when we see what looks like laziness – often times that’s
our students’ inner voice of pure Peppa.
But why is it so hard to try hard things? After all, most of us are not shaming our
kids when they have trouble. And yet still the experience of facing difficulty proves
to be too much for many kids.
There are real reasons why kids (and ourselves) shy away from challenge. Kids
know how much persistence it takes to get to the other side of a difficult challenge.
They can see the road ahead. We all can. Kate recently finished a book. At the start of
that process, the future looked bleak. She couldn't see how the little chunks of time
she had available to write could ever result in a manuscript. Without the tools she
has to help her focus on a small task ahead, without the faith past on past experience that tells her that even thirty minutes of work can build up to get the job done, she
would have given up before she started.
We cannot shy away from how embarrassing and painful it can be when we are not
that great at something. For some kids, this is no big deal: “I’m bad at math,” said
with a shrug of the shoulders. But for others, this experience of trying something
and not hitting the mark is excruciating, or at least very uncomfortable. Like most
people, kids will avoid uncomfortable, excruciating experiences whenever possible.
In his new book, Embarrassment, Tom Newkirk explores the effect this feeling can
have on students (and teachers). He offers strategies to help everyone tackle the
obstacle of shame. It is a beautiful, important, gift of a book.
If we want to help our students face difficulty, we are going to need some helpful,
concrete ways to show kids the small, actionable steps they can take when they are
balking at the challenge. When our inner Peppa Pig cries out, “That’s impossible!”
we need to be there with something clear that our students can do to take that tough
next step forward. Here are a few suggestions:
How to Prove our Inner Peppa Pig Wrong:
1. Name the ways we work hard. Every kid on our classroom knows what it’s like to
work hard at something difficult. It is a human thing. Maybe it was that summer
they chopped wood with their grandmother. Or maybe it was that really tough level
in a video game. Have students list out what they did to keep working. Put those
things on a chart and keep the list handy when things get tricky.
2. Break the tough task down into bits. The whole task is almost always impossible.
Even something as mundane as “clean the house.” To face this mountain of work,
most of us break it up: “I will clean the bathroom and then I will take a break.” Any
task can be broken up into parts; Each part can feel more doable. When reading a
nonfiction book, it’s helpful to say, “First, I’m going to take a tour of this book, Then,
I’ll make sure that I understand the first section. Reading slowly or rereading can
help enter the world of nonfiction.”
3. Celebrate tiny success. If something is difficult, we are not going to get great at it
right away. Take the little leaps forward as great moments. Celebrate with a break, a
compliment, or another task that feels fun or easy. When you accomplish something,
albeit small, name what you DID do as opposed to what you DIDN’T.
4. Get help. Anytime we truly struggle, we reach out. Period. End of story. We have
friends we text about work, friends we call about emotions. We have our own lists of
people we call to help us around the house or with the kids when life gets a little too
crazy. Make sure kids have partners they can work with when they inevitably
encounter struggle. Coach them to build inspirational musical playlists or create a
the mental routine for resetting so they can tap into it when they need to restart and
reembrace something challenging.
5. Take breaks. When a task feels like too much or too long, it can help to know you
won’t be at it forever. Set a timer for fifteen minutes, work, and then ask yourself if
you can keep at it for 15 minutes more. Or just try and pay attention to those signs
you are burnt out – irritability, disengaged, cloudy-headed – and then take a mini-
break. A quick walk around the block, listening to music or taking a few deep
breaths can sometimes be enough to reset and jump into the tough task again.
So when you catch your students (or yourself) feeling the impossibility of something
challenging, acknowledge it, recognize the voice as Peppa, and make a small move
forward into the depth of learning something new.
(And you can always reward yourself by jumping in muddy puddles…but you must wear your boots.)
Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts began their teaching careers as middle school teachers in urban centers — Kate in Brooklyn, Maggie in Chicago. They both felt a natural fit in the energy, intensity and humor of early adolescence. After their graduate education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Kate and Maggie became literacy consultants with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.
For ten years, Kate and Maggie worked across elementary, middle school, and high school grades, focusing on skill and strategy-based literacy instruction, literacy across the content areas, differentiated teaching methods, including conferring and small group instruction. Over time, Kate and Maggie have become known for their concrete solutions to tough situations, their humor, and their strong curricular, pedagogical and personal support of teachers, administrators and students. These strengths shine through during their presentations and social media presence, such as their blog, indent, Twitter accounts, and their video series for their latest book, DIY Literacy.