Helping All Students Gain Success with Brainteaser Puzzles

Brainteaser puzzles help students build endurance and perseverance, but how can we help every student be successful? Here's 5 strategies to support struggling students.

It’s Monday morning. Most of your students are at their desks, pencil in hand, happily working through their Puzzle of the Day challenge. Some students are voraciously scribbling out numbers in the puzzle grid. Others are erasing and changing their numbers. Jonathon is talking out loud as he works. “It can’t be 3 and 7 or 4 and 6. I tried that and it didn’t work,” he says to himself. Another group of students stand together around a table. They are all pointing to a puzzle. “Put the 8 there and the 2 there. If you do that, it works,” Shawna exclaims. Rico is at his desk, hugging his puzzle tightly to his chest. “I got it!” he proclaims. 

Then you see it. Olivia has her chair pulled away from her desk. She is slouched over, with her forehead resting on the edge of her desk and her two long arms dangling to the floor. Her puzzle sits untouched on the top of her desk.

As teachers, we’ve all been there. What do we do? Well, we kick it into high gear of course! This post will discuss five techniques I have used to help my students who struggle when it comes to brainteaser puzzles. With a few easy strategies, we can help students like Olivia gain the confidence they need to tackle a challenge and ultimately become successful. 

Here’s how I help my struggling students with brainteaser puzzles.

Brainteaser puzzles help students build endurance and perseverance, but how can we help every student be successful? Here's 5 strategies to support struggling students.

So, we know that brainteaser puzzles are good for kids. Not only are they entertaining, but they stimulate the brain and provide mental fitness that has massive benefits. Over time, students who are exposed to daily puzzle challenges will build endurance and perseverance when it comes to problem solving in any area of the curriculum. That being said, not every student will love the challenge of a good puzzle.

From my (20+ years) of experience as a public school classroom teacher, I have found that 9 times out of 10, struggling is more about attitude than it is about ability. When most students hit a wall or claim they can’t do something, it’s because they feel defeated. It’s usually not because they actually can’t do it. It takes a loving approach to get a student past that kind of hurdle. So, let’s get back to that story about Olivia.

There are five different techniques I might use in this situation. They are in no particular order, although the first technique is a pretty good starting point. I might use every single strategy over the course of time until Olivia begins to feel success. On the other hand, it may only require one approach. Use what works best for your individual students.

  1. Distraction- Since Olivia is clearly checked out and feeling defeated, my goal at this point is NOT about getting her to solve the puzzle. Right now, my focus is on changing her mindset. If students associate bad feelings with a particular task from past experiences, they will eventually shut down. In this type of situation, your focus should be on connecting happy feelings to the task. Right now, I could care less about seeing an answer on her paper. I just want to distract her away from the negative feelings. I would quietly approach Olivia with a basket of dry erase markers in my hand and say in the friendliest of ways, “Hey buddy, I need someone to draw a really big 3 by 3 grid on the white board for this puzzle. Which color do you want to use?” Then, I would give a warm smile and walk away. Now Olivia feels helpful. She pops up out of her seat and proudly draws the empty puzzle grid on the board. She’ll fill in the answer on her own paper when we go over it together in just a few minutes.
  2. Provide a Partial Answer- Sometimes our students just have trouble getting started. If Olivia was sitting upright with a frustrated look on her face, I might try this approach. I would quietly walk over to her and, with a smile, discreetly use a pencil to write one missing number (or letter) right on her puzzle. Then I would wink and walk away. Olivia now feels like she knows a secret. She will likely start to look at the puzzle and make sense of the hint. If your struggling student doesn’t give in the first time, try again next time or move on to another approach.
  3. Partner Up- In some cases, a struggling student will jump to action if you simply give him or her access to the right classmate. Talking about a challenge is almost always beneficial. In my class, I encourage students to work together, but some students need support in finding the right partner. I like to partner students like Olivia with another friendly student who is just one step ahead. It might be tempting to partner a struggling student with an advanced classmate, but that can lead to further frustration.
  4. Drop a Hint- This strategy is similar to providing a partial answer, but instead of writing part of the answer on the puzzle, you give a verbal hint. It’s like giving the key to a locked door. This is a good course of action to use when a student has worked hard at a puzzle, but is stuck on a step and ready to give up. For example, you might lean in and whisper, “Multiply first, then add.” Once again, smile and walk away.
  5. Adapt the Puzzle- I use this method as a last resort, if I have determined that the issue really is related to ability. There are definitely situations that require adapted puzzles. In this case, I may actually give the student a different type of puzzle that is easier to solve. By differentiating the assignment, the student can be challenged at a more appropriate level.

Helping a child through their struggles takes love and patience. In fact, it can often feel like a puzzle! Stick with it, and over time you will see results. The best feeling comes on the day when you suddenly realize that your once struggling student is now happily working on a challenge without support.

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