How to change a learner’s perception of difficulty to achieve success – Impaq Education
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How to change a learner’s perception of difficulty to achieve success

6 min read   •   
Lorian Phillips – Clinical Psychologist

In the days of old, children were expected to go to school, do their homework, study for tests and do okay. There didn’t seem to be the issues of today where children struggle to focus and concentrate, where the psychological needs of the child must be attended to and taken into consideration. Where the way we, as parents, encourage our children is put under the microscope.

In the days of old, the odd child may have had dyslexia or some learning issues, but these were certainly not common or if they were, were indeed not widely known by other learners.

Raising 21st-century kids

Parents today must deal with far more, so it seems – firstly we are in the middle of the technological revolution so that our children are already distracted by the lure of the smartphone, tablet, etc. Today, knowledge about ADHD, ADD, processing issues and so on is vast. It is not uncommon for many children to be receiving some additional therapy and to be on medications to help them focus. The good part is that there is no stigma with this, and instead, children often happily compare their different meds with each other.

Also read: Parents, here’s how screen time can work in your favour

Awareness is huge, and with that comes the next area of ‘how-to’. How do we encourage our children to succeed at school, without damaging their self-esteem? How do we motivate them and not discourage them though incorrect parenting practices?

Defining success

I believe that an important question to ask ourselves before we even start with our children is what we, as parents, value and consider to be important in terms of their academic success.

Also read: There’s more to life than academic achievement

Parents often fall into these three categories:

  1. Some parents are not concerned about their children’s marks and place more emphasis on sporting achievements.
  2. Some parents are not particularly worried about results and want their children to be happy.
  3. Some parents are very concerned, and even sometimes pushy, with their children achieving the very best, no matter what.

Developing a strong work ethic

In my years of parenting children at school and especially being the mother of ADHD children and having many moments of despair along the scholastic road, what has been the most important goal for me is for my children to have a decent work ethic. Children must learn from an early age to do the following:

  • study in advance
  • prepare their work in good time
  • use planners and calendars to coordinate their study time, leisure time and extra murals

Planning their time prepares children for high school and university where there is an increased workload and often more extracurricular activities. Planning their time also helps with their perception of difficulty as the tools of planning, organising, and prioritising cannot be underestimated.

Understanding how children learn

What also helps children to succeed is if they know their learning styles. We each have a different type of learning that makes work easier for us to access. The VARK analysis refers to these four different learning styles, namely:

V – verbal

A – auditory

R – reading

K – kinaesthetic

Learners who can understand how they learn from an earlier age, be it through having to learn aloud, using visual images, highlighters or having to carry out projects, science experiments and so on, learn how to integrate the information into their memories.

As parents, we can observe our children from the primary school years and see the most effective ways they learn and access the work. Providing them with this information also helps to give them ways to approach the subject in the best way for their brains, which improves their perception of difficulty. It is all about having tools and feeling confident in being able to use them effectively.

Also read: Encouraging your child to succeed – the do’s and don’ts

Defining learners’ perception of difficulty

Children’s’ perception of difficulty and ease of work affects their attitude towards the work. A recent study showed that what people think ease and difficulty means for them is very important. If learners are given work that they deem as easy but trivial, i.e. meaningless and beneath them, they are less motivated to carry out the work. If the task is perceived as easy but meaningful, i.e. leading to positive outcomes, learners are more motivated to carry it out.

At the same time, work that is perceived as difficult and impossible to achieve lowers learners’ motivation. In contrast, work that is perceived as difficult but challenging and worthwhile motivates learners to try harder. Therefore, the way the work is presented to the learners is important. It would be a good idea for facilitators to get an idea of this to motivate learners better.

Emphasising effort

Another essential key to this is emphasising effort as opposed to results. Learners can get demotivated and demoralised if they see the work as beyond their capabilities. The aim is to create children with a growth mindset. This concept was developed by Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who distinguished between two different mindsets – a growth one and a fixed one.

  1. Fixed mindset – people with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are fixed and can’t be changed or improved upon.
  2. Growth mindset – people with a growth mindset believe that with effort and practice, they can improve and change their outcomes.

The growth mindset is the one we want to instil in our children. Suppose they believe that with effort and practice, they can make a difference in their understanding and accessibility to the work. In that case, they will be more motivated to try harder and put that effort in so that the focus is not on difficulty but effort and input. This, in turn, brings about results.


There are many ways to help our children with their perception of difficulty to achieve success, whatever that may mean to each parent. The most important thing is not to undermine their attempts and to give them the confidence to keep trying, and eventually, they will find their way, some sooner and some later.