Frustration is a Natural Stage in Learning


Mishaps Present Opportunities for Learning

Last holiday season, during a "cookie decorating party", I enjoyed using my lack of artistic talent to frost purple Santas, lopsided mittens, and charred snowmen.

It was fun using my fingers to create swirls, push little candy balls into dough, and put sprinkles on whatever I could sprinkle.

After licking my fingers sufficiently, I washed my hands and looked down at my creation, a cookie that looked more like a rocket than a reindeer.

It was then that I noticed several parents decorating cookies on behalf of their kids.

It didn't make sense; how could anybody NOT want to decorate a cookie??

When I asked one of the kids why he wasn't making a mess—like I had—his parent blurted out, "Because they didn’t know how to decorate, and I don’t want a meltdown!"


Another mom then confessed that she had built her son's entire graham-cracker house because "he would just get too frustrated".


Several parents also admitted they don’t let their children hang ornaments on the Christmas tree or arrange the candles in the Menorah because they’ll “make a big mess”.


Sorry, but all I could think of was how these little experiences and probable mishaps present opportunities for neural connections within the brain. And these consequences and implications for learning directly relate to academics and life.

Why Frustration is Necessary in Learning

Has anybody else noticed the low threshold for frustration that now seems to be the norm in our society?

The child who can't answer a math problem immediately, throws down her pencil, and announces “this is impossible!”

The reading student who refuses to write a chapter summary for To Kill a Mockingbird because "it's too hard."

The AP U.S. History who student doesn't know why he got the DBQ wrong, but doesn't "feel like looking up the info because it takes too long on Google, and the teacher didn't say we had to."

The science teacher who performs all the labs while students watch passively because "they will waste supplies and time, plus there are Bunsen burners!"

The business executive who screams into the phone while driving on the Beltway because he can't get his "Bluetooth to work" ( immediately).

The neighbors who toss their Christmas tree because some lights stopped working, and they don’t understand how to fix it.

The Tour de France wannabee who yells obscenities at slow cyclists on the family bike trail. (Okay, that is one of my pet peeves, but patience is essential in learning.)

If everything comes easily to you, are you really learning? NO. Frustration is a natural stage in learning.

Teaching kids—and adults—how to handle frustration is probably the most important brain (and social) skill we can offer our kids.

The smallest interaction can provide a valuable learning tool, also known as a brain-enhancing experience.

So the next time your kid sets the table with the forks on the right side of the plate and the napkin a little askew, know that you are helping your child’s brain develop! (Then have him or her put the forks on the left side!)

Photo by Michele L from FreeImages

The Brain Coach Blog is written by executive function coach Mary Turos. Based in Belair, MD, Mary is affectionately known as 'The Brain Coach" for her work helping people achieve harmony using strategies based in neuroscience.

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