Unpacking “Do your best”: More Than Just Three Words

From a learning and brain science standpoint, “do your best” is a complex directive. The all too common classroom expectation of “do my best” is a staple in many classrooms.

Yet, from perspectives grounded in learning science and brain mechanics, “do my best” is far from straightforward or clear, especially for neurodivergent learners. Let’s dive in a bit deeper and look at a few things that should be considered before we ask someone to do their best.

  • An Ever-Changing Metric: To “do one’s best” is a combination of several factors: innate abilities, the present environment, available resources, current mental health status, and an individual student’s neurotype. Understandably, for some, their “best” may differ from day to day due to various reasons, including stress, mental health challenges, or external pressures. It’s not a static standard; everyone’s capacity fluctuates based on multiple factors at play. By recognizing and accommodating such fluctuations, educators can be more empathetic and flexible, allowing for a more inclusive and understanding learning environment. It’s also crucial for students to understand this concept so they can better self-regulate, seek help when needed, and not be overly self-critical on days when their capacity might be lower.

  • Emotional Strain: For some students, the pressure to always “do their best” can lead to anxiety, burnout, and a fear of failure. The constant striving for an ambiguous standard of “best” can be mentally exhausting and deter students from taking risks or exploring areas outside their comfort zones.

  • Inequity in Resources and Support: Not all students have the same resources, support systems, or environments conducive to learning. Expecting every student to “do their best” without accounting for these differences can inadvertently perpetuate inequities and place undue burden on disadvantaged students. On some days, their “best” might simply be showing up to class.

  • Potential for Misinterpretation by Educators: Teachers might misconstrue a student’s struggle or lack of understanding as them not “doing their best,” when in reality, the student might be facing challenges beyond their control or might genuinely not grasp the material.

  • Brain Development and Mastery: The human brain, notably the prefrontal cortex, is a work in progress until the late twenties. This region plays a pivotal role in decision-making, impulse control, and setting priorities, all crucial to “doing one’s best.” Furthermore, learning science reveals that true mastery doesn’t spring from sheer repetition. Techniques like active retrieval, spaced repetition, and varied practice are fundamental. So, urging someone to “do their best” shouldn’t solely mean exerting the most effort, but also channeling that effort wisely.

  • The Role of Rest: Recent neuroscience has brought to light the vital role of rest in cognitive and emotional development. Without adequate intervals of relaxation and rest, the neural connections required for learning and growth might not form optimally. Hence, continually pushing a student to “do one’s best,” without accounting for the necessary downtime, can be counterproductive if not outright harmful.

  • Neurodivergent Perspectives: For neurodivergent individuals, including those with ADHD, autism, or dyslexia, the notion of ‘doing your best’ often diverges from conventional expectations. Their interpretation and execution of this concept might not align with traditional standards, reflecting their unique ways of thinking and processing the world around them. Their neurology might not always align with traditional learning styles or expectations. For instance, an individual with ADHD may experience phases of intense hyperfocus followed by episodes of distractibility. Recognizing and understanding these patterns is essential to help them actually achieve their “best.”

While the intent behind “do your best” is often well-meaning, it’s essential to recognize the pitfalls and nuances, especially in a diverse classroom setting. A more accepting and realistic approach would be to foster a learning environment that values effort but also acknowledges individual differences, promotes understanding, and offers support tailored to each student’s unique needs and circumstances. 


  • Connie Persike

    Connie is a highly experienced Speech Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant. As founder of Supportable Solutions, she brings 20+ years of experience in educational settings to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin — and throughout the country — who need expert direction in working with children.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close