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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

The Overly Dependent Student

Excessive dependency creates problems for both teacher and student. An overly dependent student can command so much of your attention that you have little time left for other students. The time spent with an overly dependent student, moreover, is not always helpful. Indeed, his excessive reliance on you (and others) can limit his involvement with his peers, thus minimizing opportunities to develop essential social skills and stifling his social development.

The overly dependent student has a problem with trust -- and the person he has trouble trusting is himself. He is reluctant to think for himself, to make decisions for himself, to talk for himself. Instead of looking inward for answers, he looks to you for support and assistance -- so much so that he risks becoming your constant companion. He seems to spend more time at your desk than at his own, as he bombards you with a blizzard of questions or simply hovers by your side.

The goal in working with an overly dependent student is to help him become more self-reliant and develop more trust in his own judgment. That requires that you communicate to him your expectations and set firm limits on your interactions; that you give him attention in ways that foster his independence and avoid interacting with him in ways that foster his dependence.

Encourage the student to trust his own judgment. Try to lessen the student's reliance on others by helping him build confidence in his own judgment and ability to solve problems. Avoid doing for him what he is able to do on his own. If he asks you a question, have him sharer his ideas first, and then find a way to support what he says. If he struggles to answer a question, encourage him to figure out the answer while giving him some hints and leading him toward the correct answer. If he has a conflict with another student, encourage both students to solve the problem themselves.

Identify what's behind the student's clinginess. Some children are temperamentally shy and clingy, while others might be reacting to a specific problem. If you notice a child becoming more dependent on you, talk with him and with his parents to find out if something in particular is upsetting him.

Discourage the student's questions. Children who are insecure often look for reassurance by questioning their teacher at every turn. The following strategies -- which you might use both with the dependent student and with your entire class -- can help limit those questions to a reasonable number:

  • Ask three, then me: Explain to the student that if he has a question he must ask three classmates before he can ask you.
  • The five-minute rule: Tell the student that he must work on a task for five minutes before he may ask you a question. If he has a question during the first five minutes, he has to try to figure out the answer on his own or ask a classmate.
  • Question limit: Limit the student to a predetermined number of questions each day. To help him keep track, you might give him a set number of poker chips every day and require him to give you a chip every time he asks a question. Once he's used his chips for the day, he's not allowed to ask any more questions.

Ignore clingy behavior. Although it might not be easy, if the student is grasping your arm or hovering at your side unnecessarily, do not look at him or talk with him. Move away, if necessary, by gently undoing his grasp. Continue with your lesson and give attention and praise to students who are behaving appropriately. The idea is to help the student understand that you will respond to appropriate behavior and ignore clingy behavior. Be sure to give the student more attention when he behaves independently than when he behaves dependently.

Assign the student a classroom buddy. If you have a student who is excessively reliant on you, pair him with a mature, responsible classmate, and tell the dependent student to see his buddy first when he needs help.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.