What Causes What?

Over the years, I’ve asked a number of students who are struggling academically what they think is causing their academic struggles. The answers are often the same.

“I keep putting my homework off until the end of the week instead of getting it done right when class gets out.”

“Procrastination. I have a big problem with procrastination.”

“I haven’t been managing my time well.”

“The homework gets hard and then I give up.”

“I get distracted by YouTube videos.”

“There is always something else I want to do.”

These answers are helpful and not helpful. On the one hand, students are being honest and taking responsibility. On the other hand, the answers are essentially useless. Read through them again and you will see that they are just barely one step up from “I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t do my homework.” It’s no wonder that students (and parents and teachers) who can only get to this depth of analysis have difficulty making significant progress on the issue. When this is the depth of analysis the solution to the problem is similarly shallow-

“I want to do my homework at the beginning of the week.”

“I’m going to stop procrastinating.”

“I think I’ll make a schedule so that I manage my time better.”

“I’m going to not watch YouTube videos when I’m doing homework.”

“I’m going to do the hard things first and the fun things second.”

Again, useless. None of these ideas are bad ideas. They are all great things to do. They’re just useless as solutions. At least they’re useless in isolation. They’re useless in isolation because (so long as this is the extent of the conversation) they operate on two flawed premises.

The first flawed premise is that students are dummies (which is not true). When I hear this sort of solution it sounds more like-

“Well, I just didn’t have any idea that putting off my homework until the end of the week was a bad idea. But now that you’ve asked this thought provoking question, I have come to the powerful and non obvious conclusion that I should instead get my homework done toward the beginning of the week. Thank goodness I have come to this realization so that I can now change my behavior.”

“Upon serious contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that procrastination is a bad thing that is giving me bad results instead of a good thing that is giving me good results. It took some serious weighing of the evidence and consideration from multiple perspectives, but I am now firmly in the “procrastination is bad” camp and thus will now stop procrastinating.”

“It has been a long journey, but I’ve finally gotten myself to the healthiest spot in my life. I’ve finally figured out that it was the YouTube videos during homework that have been keeping me from actually doing the homework. It seems so simple now, and I don’t know how I missed that. But I’ve finally gotten to the spot in my life where I know that watching several hours of YouTube instead of doing homework is keeping me from getting my homework done. And I feel free.”


It makes me want to ask, “You didn’t already know that?” But of course they already knew that! As a matter of fact, I’m certain that they’ve already been through this same conversation with their parents and with themselves dozens of times, and it hasn’t resulted in significant change. Because these problems are obvious, students aren’t dummies, and things haven’t changed, clearly a greater depth of analysis is necessary. Put another way, if a greater depth of analysis weren’t necessary, then the student would have already made the changes and we wouldn’t be having the conversation.

The second flawed premise is that the problem is primarily external and behavioral. In other words, struggling students (and often teachers and parents) tend to believe that academic failure begins with external behavior. This represents a basic misunderstanding of what causes what. If you ask a struggling student about the interplay between their academic behaviors and how they feel about themselves as a student, the answer will most often look something like this-

“I make poor choices (don’t do homework, don’t try in class, etc.). As a result, I feel bad about myself (feel stupid, feel ashamed, feel lost or purposeless).”

It’s pretty simple, it seems very obvious, and it clearly has some validity. Poor choices generally are accompanied by a sense of failure, and I can’t think of anyone I’ve met who sincerely feels better for making poor choices. So you can see the appeal of that understanding of the situation. It seems to explain everything in a fairly obvious and forthright manner. But, however true that understanding of academic failure is, my experience has been (and significant research and well studied theories of human development substantiate) that the process is more true in the reverse. As in-

“I feel bad about myself (feel stupid, feel ashamed, feel lost or purposeless). As a result, I make poor choices (don’t do homework, don’t try in class, etc).”

In this case, “I feel bad about myself” is a fairly simplistic way to say a very complex thing. To help you understand, consider the following.

  • In the MetaX education dataset, procrastination is demonstrated to have a strong negative influence on education. However, children being maltreated (abused or neglected in some way) has a statistically stronger negative outcome. And so does student anger (specifically anger at a sense of unfairness) and student frustration,
  • In the same dataset, other student factors that have strong negative academic results are a chronic illness, depression, anxiety, student perception that they are being judged or stereotyped, and a student not having developed deep and intrinsic motivations for academic success.
  • One of the most well studied theories of human development is David Elkind’s “imaginary audience”. This is a standard feature of teenage life (though different teens experience it to different degrees), in which teenagers feel that they have the constant attention of people at large. This can cause frequent feelings of embarrassment or shame, a dip in self esteem, and can get tangled up in larger problems that already exist in a child’s life.
  • Another major theory of human development is Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Without getting into too many particulars the core of the theory is that humans have some key questions that they have to answer in order to thrive in their personal development, and those who have muddled or negative answers encounter significant difficulty in their development. These include questions like
    • Can I trust the world as a safe place?
    • Can I exercise a right to autonomy as a person?
    • Am I an inferior in my ability to accomplish and grow?
    • Do I have an identity that is uniquely mine?
    • Can I build and maintain meaningful connections with others?

So when I say that it is more true that students feel bad about themselves and as a result they struggle academically, I’m saying that students first-

  • Haven’t developed a sense of meaning and fulfillment in their education
  • Are having difficulty managing the persistent feeling that everyone sees all of their flaws
  • Are not dealing well with feelings of anger or frustration generally or with regards to school specifically
  • Have experienced abuse, neglect, or other types of trauma (such as bullying) which is taking away the headspace and emotional energy necessary to succeed in school
  • Don’t know how to manage the limitations of chronic illness
  • Experience depression or anxiety
  • Deal with a persistent feelings of inferiority
  • Feel disrespected by authority figures
  • Etc.

And then they struggle academically. This changes the prescription entirely. Because at the bottom isn’t a dumb, defective, lazy kid who needs to realize that procrastination is a bad thing and change their behavior. At the bottom is a hurt, lost, confused, uncertain, or frustrated kid who needs to grow. And that is the primary point of my article – my experience and research as a teacher leads me to believe that humans generally and students specifically do not primarily change behavior to change behavior. They grow internally to change behavior.

This perspective has been confirmed over and again in my teaching experiences. I have met and worked with every one of the children on the list above and many more. I find them because I ask students what is causing them to struggle and don’t stop asking when they say “procrastination.” And I’ve seen them change as they’ve grown internally. And, of course, I’ve seen them not change as they have not grown internally. Just as importantly, whenever I see a student make significant progress, I try to ask what happened to them. The answer is almost never, “I finally buckled down and started trying hard.” More often it is-

  • “I realized that pretending to not care about stuff was just a way that I was keeping myself from being judged, but I don’t want to do that anymore.”
  • “I decided that I really care whether or not I succeed. I just realized that I think I’m worth working for.”
  • “I believed that I was just worse at debate than everyone else, but I realized that I can get better at it and I wanted to get better at it.”

Again, my experience is that students don’t change behavior to change behavior. They grow internally to change behavior.

And this perspective is also confirmed in my own experiences. Though I often did not understand the connection at the time, in my own life major changes in behavior are almost always accompanied by moments of significant internal growth. I became an A student instead of a C student when I finally came to like myself in eleventh grade. I became more willing to take reasonable risks in my business when I stopped believing that my successes were luck I had stumbled into instead of results that I had created. I became less harsh as a parent when I decided that I had a right to control the environment in which my children operate, but not their choices. And I started reaching more students as a teacher when I started believing that struggling students aren’t primarily dumb, defective, or lazy and that their problems were not primarily behavioral.

Students will often grow on their own, and this will result in changes in behavior. And insightful students can often see that process retrospectively. But it isn’t frequent that in the moment they can identify the elements of their internal environment that are leading them to poor choices. Thank goodness they have us – adults who have been through the sort of experiences that they are experiencing. We can ask questions and listen more than dictate and explain. We can help them get beyond the paper thin “I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t do my homework.” We can help them identify the internal growth that will help them challenge long standing and stubborn behaviors. And that means that we can help them speed up the process of growth. It’s still their choice. Some students will decline to introspect. We can’t do it for them. And we can’t make them act on meaningful realizations. But we can decline to get confused on what causes what, and we can create an environment in which students are invited to engage in the sort of internal growth that will produce lasting and meaningful changes in behavior.