Helping Kids Deal With Failure
When students complain about failing, we should counter with this response: "Okay, you don't like the way that turned out. What did you learn from the experience?" Celebrating failure seems a bit simplistic and counterintuitive, but what we can learn to do is treat it as a normal aspect of growth. It's important for learners to grab onto something they can take away from every effort so they can improve the next time they make an attempt. We should model for them how to learn from missteps and how to stay true to their goals.
Adults can emphasize the fact that failure is just a natural part of the learning process; we can model appropriate responses to temporary setbacks or roadblocks. We need to teach students about deliberate practice and help them understand that they cannot grow without some risk and some pain (physical and/or cognitive and/or emotional.) We have to empower them with the knowledge that their efforts and their choices are things they can control every day.
If we want children to internalize the desirability of the philosophy "fall down seven times, get up eight," it is important that we act as role models who incorporate this belief system into our daily lives. We need to verbalize it when we do it and call attention to our intentional choices to stand once again rather than give up.
For students to learn the important life lessons about perseverance and resilience, they need both modeling and practice. We need to ensure that both parents and teachers provide excellent standards for successfully handling setbacks and failures. Here are a couple of examples.
Negative modeling: "I am the world's worst cook! Every time I try a new recipe, I manage to find a way to ruin it. Look at that cake I made. It looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa! That's it. It probably tastes as bad as it looks. I'm tired of wasting money on stuff that ends up tasting like cardboard anyway."
Positive modeling: "Okay, that cake could use a little structural support, but I'm hoping it will taste okay. I seem to always have trouble when I try a new recipe. Maybe I need to slow down and make sure I'm following the directions exactly. I think I'll start double-checking myself. Also, I'm going to check out a cooking DVD from the library. Maybe if I could watch a master cook do the same things I'm trying to do, it would help. Do you kids have any ideas about how I can become a better cook?"
Committing to deliberate practice is hard for almost everyone. It is especially difficult for young people who don't always see the whole picture. It is much easier to keep doing what we have already mastered and feel competent about, but that is not how we grow. Self-regulation is a vital component to building the kind of character that compels us to keep at something long after our initial interest has left us and to keep pushing our limits far beyond what we previously thought they were. Self-regulation allows us to override our natural desire for a steady diet of victory and to begin to appreciate the lessons to be learned from failing. Being able to apply the lessons learned from our shortfalls is a key strategy to lifetime success.
"Most people have the will to win; few have the will to prepare to win." Vince Lombardi
This is an excerpt from Debbie Silver's book Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids To Succeed (Corwin and AMLE, 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education