Frustration Follow Up

Have a look at the following two scenarios that deal with frustration and its follow up.

Scenario One During a lesson, the student repeatedly returns to the beginning of the piece, starting over again and again in order to create sufficient momentum to make it through the unwieldy challenges in bar 3. Finally, in acknowledgment of having hit a brick wall, the student fumes, “I can’t believe this! I played this piece with no mistakes every day last week! This is so frustrating!”

What do you do? What do you say? Consider these options:

A. The teacher says, “Don’t worry. It happens to everybody. Why don’t you just give it one more try?”

B. The teacher says, “Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself… Everything’s okay.”

C. The teacher says something else.

While it’s easy to appreciate the teacher’s attempt to neutralize the situation in both options A and B, it’s interesting to consider how each of these options uses statements that are completely contradictory to the student’s experience.

“Don’t worry.” – The student has already passed the point of worrying. Telling him or her not to worry will most likely have no positive impact.

“It happens to everybody.” – A nice bit of information, but knowing it happens to everyone else doesn’t really give the student any sense of what to do next.

“Why don’t you just give it one more try?” – At this point, it’s highly unlikely that trying it one more time will produce a different result.

“Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself.” – Good advice that goes completely opposite to what the student is experiencing.

“Everything’s okay.” – Obviously everything is not okay. Saying it’s okay only indicates the teacher doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

As an alternative, I’d like to suggest that when teachers encounter student frustration like the above example, they consider four steps for follow up.

  1. Acknowledge the student’s response – “I hear what you’re saying.” This simple empathic statement goes a long ways to confirm that teachers are on the same page as their students.
  2. Solicit the student’s involvement – “What do youthink is going on?” Rather than jumping to solve the situation, teachers indicate their confidence in the student’s thinking process.
  3. Allow the student sufficient time to process what’s happening. It could take an entire 60 seconds of reflective thinking for students to come up with an accurate assessment.
  4. Demonstrate your willingness to contribute – “What do you need from me?” “What can I do to help?”

What’s important in this situation is for teachers to avoid contradicting the student’s experience by using neutralizing language. When teachers downplay the intensity of the student’s experience, it’s easy for students to lose confidence in the teacher’s ability to really grasp what they’re going through. When teachers empower students to come up with their own solutions, they prepare students for the inevitability of the next frustrating situation.


Scenario Two – This example comes from my own teaching of nine-year-old Jonathan. During the first several years of Jonathan’s lessons, I had become aware that he’s often frustrated with his own progress. Now he is in the third week of learning a new piece.

MBT – So how’s your new piece coming along.

J – Okay, I’ve learned the first two lines.

MBT – What about the next line?

J – Well, I haven’t had time for it yet.

MBT (I remember he said the same thing the previous weeks) You know, when I look at the third line, I see how it might be easy to get frustrated in learning it. Tell me – what’s your strategy if you get frustrated?

J – I walk away.

MBT – You walk away… I think I get what you’re saying… Because if you don’t walk away, you’ll probably just get more frustrated. So that seems like a good idea. But, what happens if you walk away every day for three weeks?

J – I’m not sure…

MBT – Well… I have the impression that when you walk away from frustration the first couple of times, it means you’re the one who’s in charge. But after that, when you walk away from frustration, it’s actually line three that’s in charge. It’s kind of like – every time you walk away, you leave a brick for line three to use in making an even stronger wall against you. And if you continue to walk away, the wall just gets bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger. Can you see where I’m going?

J – Um hm.

MBT – So I’m thinking this week might be the time to change your strategy with frustration. How about when you get to line three, you just sneak past the wall? You don’t need to knock it down. Just sneak past without the wall being able to find out about it.

* * *

Honestly speaking, I had no idea whether my suggestion would work or not. It was a spontaneous metaphorical application. Would it be enough to help? I could only hope. After Jonathan played the entire piece from beginning to end without any sign of frustration at his next lesson, I remember smiling and congratulating him on sneaking past the wall.