When we see our children or our students heading in the wrong direction, our first instinct is to stop and correct them. It’s natural. We want to protect them from pain, disappointment, and frustration. However, by letting children experience natural consequences of their choices (especially the upsetting consequences), we help them to become more competent, self-confident, and resilient – comfortable facing adversity and able to overcome challenges.
Although advice like “let them try and fail” seems obvious, it is very hard to follow. The important thing is to find the balance between empathy and support and imposing a necessary level of discipline.
Teaming up with parents
Parents tend to look for validation in their child’s achievements and see those as a “report card” on their own success as parents. If my kid is a straight-A student, plays cello, and brings home athletic trophies, I must be doing a great job raising her. That’s why they might become overinvolved.
Every teacher has her share of parents who closely monitor their child’s academic life, invasively help with homework, and even beg or threaten a teacher to have a grade raised. They don’t stop at that. Did you know that a significant number of customers at paper-writing services are parents who order admission essay for their college-bound children? Parents even start having what Jessica Lahey calls “a pronoun problem”. They say, “our application” and “we are aiming for Stanford”.
To teach your students to fail forward, you must make parents your allies. Explain how failure and a little disappointment today will make a world of good for their children in the long run. If parents approach you and demand your leniency on a plagiarized research paper, explain to them that it’s better to get one “F” and learn not to plagiarize in middle school, than to lose entire academic career if they continue to do it and get caught as adults.
Advise them to step back and refrain from monitoring too closely. Tell them they shouldn’t check grades on parents’ portal every day – it’s detrimental micromanagement that only makes children rebellious and resentful. Assure parents that you will let them know if their child starts spiraling out of control.
Making a teachable moment
First, you need to hold your students up for the consequences. They need to own up to their failures and feel this little bit of pain that is disappointment. Don’t berate them, but don’t cushion the consequences either. If they left their assignment at home, they should experience consequences – a diminished grade, an additional task to rectify the situation, whatever feels appropriate.
The next step is acknowledging and validating the frustration of your student. Be empathic to teach them acceptance and problem-solving skills. First, they should accept things as they are. “I’ve messed up this test, there’s nothing I can do about this”. That will build up their resilience and frustration tolerance.
After the acceptance, teach them how they can change the outcome in the future. Make a mistake they’ve made into a question, “What are you going to learn from it? Can you change anything in the future? What can you do to do better next time? What can you do to make yourself remember about your assignments?”
Giving more autonomy
For children to benefit from their failures, they need to have responsibility and control over age-appropriate tasks with the stakes that are fairly low. Project-based learning, group learning, and self-directed learning techniques are great ways to implement such autonomy. While you still are supervising and supporting your students, you give them the freedom to choose their tasks, ways they will approach solving it and a way the results will be presented and measured.
Within the approved curriculum and other stiff frameworks, such things might feel like stupid busywork to us (of course we know the best way to tackle this task). Yet in reality, they are great moments of accomplishment for kids. They allow them to face the desirable difficulties – educational tasks that require a considerable but desirable amount of effort. This is important because learning that comes with an effort sticks in our memory longer than something learned effortlessly. Failure and difficulty are good for long-term learning.
Moreover, the ability to tolerate failure, to push forward when something is not going exactly your way is sometimes more important to learn than whatever the content subject is.
Modeling a failure
Of course, this also means that we should put our money where our mouth is and share stories of our failures and of how we moved on and persevered. Teacher infallibility is a dated notion. You sharing some embarrassing fails can be very beneficial for your students and help you to connect with them emotionally. They will feel inspired because they can relate to the story.
It is also good for them to see you experience failure and bounce back in real-time. For example, you can frankly say, “Oh shoot! I should’ve budget more time on explaining this new topic. The lesson is nearly over and we have so much to cover still! Well, next time I will do a lightning round to start off our lesson instead of giving you a questionnaire to fill”.
You can also humble yourself by learning from your students. There are undoubtedly topics on which they are more competent – certain technology, youth culture, their heritage. Ask them questions about those when appropriate. Ask them for help. They will see you not as an authoritative figure who is there to assess them, but their ally interested in who they are and how to help them. They will let go of their fear of failure.
Shifting to the growth mindset
Nurture growth mindset in your students. They should remember that improvement is always possible. It takes time, effort, and – yes – a lot of failures to get to a new level of competency and understanding. Yet if your students try hard, they can do it. Always praise them for doing their best and carrying on – not for being effortlessly “smart” or “good at Math” because this kind of praise contributes to a fixed mindset, where everything is achieved (I already am smart) and can only get worse (I’ve made a mistake, that means I’m not smart after all).
Research has shown that kids who are praised for being smart are more likely to shy away from a challenging task and to lie about their achievements to keep up the “smart” reputation. They are risk-averse, insecure, and prone to suffering from imposter syndrome.
Whereas children who are praised for trying hard are more likely to undertake challenges and be honest about their struggles. They are also more likely to have adequate self-esteem that goes from within. They don’t need someone telling them they are smart or praising them over and over.
They respect themselves for pushing through, trying something, screwing it up, figuring out how they can do it again, and getting to a place where they finally achieve something. That is what real self-esteem is about. That’s something called competence and competence is ever a work in progress, something you keep building.
Teaching students to be self-empathic
Another thing you should teach your students is to forgive themselves for failures. Some young people can be very hard on themselves for not getting the best possible grade or not getting into a special class for gifted kids. Everything from name-calling to self-harm stems from seeing failure as something negative, something to avoid.
If you hear students talking negatively about themselves or punishing themselves for failure in some other way (I’ve seen elementary students slapping themselves on the head for reading mistakes) – address this. Ask them would they berate their friend or sibling for something as trivial as a spelling error. Teach them to extend the same love and compassion to themselves as they do to their loved ones. Show them the importance of forgiving themselves for failures.
Failure is an inseparable part of life and, as educators, it’s our job to prepare our students to deal with it.
Overall, it all boils down to three things:
1. Letting your students fail, giving them this freedom, resisting the urge to remove obstacles on their way.
2. Teaching them not to fear failure, not to see it as something negative.
3. Turning failure into an opportunity to learn something, to improve one’s skills.
Using these tips, you’ll surely help your students come to terms with failure and prepare them for life. While they might find failure difficult to manage at first, it’s a vital skill for them to learn.
Your students will surely thank you for teaching them how to fail.