Practical Tips & Tools

Basic Literacy & Numeracy

Tips to Overcome Emotional and Social Barriers to Adult Learner Persistence

October 2, 2023

Student persistence is a consistent topic of interest and discussion in adult education. When adults decide to return to the classroom, they’re at a much different place in their lives than when they were kids in school. The demands of family, jobs, and daily necessities that compete with their desire to return to the classroom. So once an adult makes the decision to go back, helping them persist becomes critical.

But beyond these classic barriers to persistence, adult learners frequently must overcome significant social and emotional hurdles.

Social and emotional, or dispositional, barriers can be any number of things and might not even be the same from student to student. These barriers include attitudes and self-perceptions that students associate with learning that can prevent them from participating in an education program, said Stephanie Patton, Utah Adult Education Coordinator.

Self-doubt and fear can also stifle an adult returning to the classroom—a place they may associate with negative memories.

An adult might feel guilty or selfish for focusing on their own education when they have so many other responsibilities to consider, said Phyllis Atwood, PhD, GOAL Program Pathways Coordinator at Calhoun Community College in Alabama. Self-doubt and fear can also stifle an adult returning to the classroom—a place they may associate with negative memories. Adults seeking their second chance at education have also said they worry about being judged for not finishing the first time. In response, Atwood has focused research on what institutions, rather than students, can do to encourage persistence.

Perceptive instructors who are aware of these barriers can help students manage these emotional deterrents to education. Patton and Atwood each shared some of their tips on how programs can improve student persistence in the face of social and emotional barriers.

  1. Create a positive and welcoming environment starting with the very first program personnel to interact with new students to help combat insecurity and fears.
  2. Set a tone of understanding and adaptability in the classroom from day one. Empathy and a judgement-free zone is first, followed by empowerment. Remember, despite feeling uncertain, students had the courage to walk through the door. If they know there is a culture willing to adapt to changing needs, students become empowered to overcome obstacles and succeed in the program.
  3. Establish a plan of study based on students’ outside influences: their support systems, available nuggets of study time, attendance expectations, etc.
  4. Flip the classroom, and let people learn from one another. If a natural mentor-mentee relationship occurs, recognize the value and voice encouragement. Students will find they all have different strengths and areas of expertise, and that they can seek help from those who are experts in areas they are not.

Ultimately, it comes down to validation. So many emotions can hold a person back, but validation can empower them to overcome and keep learning.