• By: Adele Blair

Teaching your kid to ask for help


Dear Adele,

We have just finished the parent-teacher interview for our eight-year-old son, who is currently in Grade 3, French Immersion. His teacher said he was bright, social and currently an academic match for his peers. On occasion, however, he struggles, and does not seem to know how to ask for help. The teacher has suggested that we work on this but we are at a loss as to how to help. Can you comment?

At a Loss


Dear At a Loss,

How pleased you must be to have received a good report about your son at the parent-teacher interview. It sounds like he is generally doing well in school. You are fortunate to have a teacher to note areas that can be improved. Reluctance to ask for help is a common problem.

You might be wise to start by analyzing exactly why your son is reluctant to ask for help when he needs it. Sometimes children are overwhelmed by so many problems they don’t know where to begin. Other times they are struggling with new learning, sit in silence and the teacher doesn’t catch it. Occasionally, kids may be embarrassed because they missed a point or two in the lesson and need clarification. Children do not want to be seen as incompetent or ignorant. They might be concerned about what others think of them and need help to understand that it is what they think of themselves that is important. Once in a while, youngsters may feel nervous and uncomfortable to ask a question or raise their hands. They might be worried that they’ll be turned down, seen as weak or considered not very smart. Our societal value of self-reliance is very strong and may limit the child from seeking help, as well.

Your child may be experiencing one or many of these feelings in the school setting. Figuring out the reasons will help you design strategies to ameliorate the problem. It is unfortunate when these feelings exist because asking for help is actually a sign of maturity and strength. Asking for assistance can nip a problem in the bud so it does not get worse and result in lower grades.

You and your child need to do an honest assessment of his problem areas. Talking with him at home in an open, supportive way can help your offspring strengthen his own self-assessment. You can ask your boy about things like study time for a test, questions about his classroom achievement, and subjects he is finding difficult. During the conversation you can support him with affirming statements about his areas of strength. Let him know that everyone is imperfect and requires help at some time to move forward in knowledge. Perhaps you can give him some examples of times you have needed to ask for help and times you have given help when asked.

Try to use positive language and build self-esteem. Create a secure atmosphere of openness, curiosity and comfort with risk-taking. Let your child know that you are available and willing to help him.

Discuss with your child why teachers choose education for a career and what their job is. Identify helpers such as teachers’ aides, the librarian, a parent, a sibling, a relative, a friend, a neighbour, a tutor or a peer who might be of assistance with the subject areas your child is learning. Be sure your child knows that you and his teacher are there to help him as much as possible, whenever he needs it.

A Psychology Today article by Dr. Alice Boyes entitled ‘7 Effective Ways to Ask for Help (and Get It)’ lists some ideas to teach your offspring.

  • Ensure that he has tried to help himself before approaching the teacher. People are always more receptive when they know a person has attempted to solve a problem him or herself.
  • Ensure he expresses appreciation for past assistance and shows that he has taken the person’s advice before.
  • Timing is important. The child should ask when the best time to get help might be.
  • The child should be very specific and clear about his need or problem. It may be wise to write it down and think about it before asking verbally.
  • The boy needs to be persistent and ask several sources, in multiple ways, if the problem is not solved the first time.
  • Your son should make small requests rather than big ones.
  • Ensure that he practices giving help generously and regularly, as this makes it easier for the child to ask for help himself.

I have a few ideas for you which might work with your eight year old to help him ask for assistance in the classroom. They come mostly from my experience in working with this age group in the school system.

  • Teach your child to help others, as this will increase his credibility and the reciprocity he receives from others.
  • Teach your boy how to express gratitude, to acknowledge help, to be authentic and sincere, and to say how others have helped him.
  • Model helpfulness and asking for assistance.
  • Teach your progeny to be specific and clear about what he needs when he speaks. Role play some situations at home.
  • Teach your child to use positive framing for his request such as” I know you are very busy but could you please help me with…”. Practice sentence starters.
  • Teach your offspring self-affirming statements he can use to ask for help such as “This is tough, but I know I can learn it.” Rather than “I suck at Math. I hate this stuff.”
  • Teach your child about the importance of timing when asking for help. Teachers have large classes and many needs to meet. They may not be able to assist your son exactly when he wants it. Teaching him to ask the teacher when is a good time to discuss his problem, is a useful skill going forward as well.
  • Arrange with the teacher, signals your boy can use to ask for help and then teach them to your child. Raising the hand in the air is a traditional one. Placing a specific stuffed animal on the corner of his desk could be a visual indicator to the teacher that the pupil needs help. Developing a code word which would be written in his notebooks, could be a useful alert to the marker that your son wants help with a concept or activity. A set of stickers could function in the same way when the child needs a review of particular work he has accomplished. The teacher might also keep a list of student requests for help or consultation.
  • Ask your child’s teacher to arrange a peer tutor in the classroom, who might be of assistance when the teacher is busy with other students.
  • Be available to your child nightly for a set homework time, during which you encourage a culture of asking for help.
  • Consider hiring a tutor for your child to work one-on-one with him in his weakest subject. Ask the tutor to focus on teaching your child to ask for help.

Jennifer Sullivan has written an excellent article worth reviewing entitled ‘5 Tips for Teaching Students How to Ask for Help’. A useful book for primary children by Nyasha M. Chikoware is called ‘Giraffe Asks for Help’.

Thank you for writing At a Loss. It is wonderful to see the cooperation between home and school happening in your family. It is a recipe for success for your boy in the academic setting. I wish you the best.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: National Cancer Institute