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Embrace Failure in Education

By Joshua Sneideman

Nobody likes failing, but if you are a teenager, failing can feel devastating. However, failing is one of life’s best teachers for success. Students need to learn ways to face their failures head-on. The word atychiphobia means “fear of failure.” There aren’t many students who are familiar with this word but many experience atychiphobia daily. 

Parents want to protect their children from all kinds of pain and discomfort, both emotional or physical. But when we keep all the hardships away, we are depriving our children of creating a sense of confidence that gets created when we overcome any challenge. Helicopter parenting has created young adults who don’t have the skills to solve problems by themselves.

If children don’t get a chance to handle the obstacles that come their way, they will grow into teenagers who have what scientists call “failure deprivation,” students who have problems handling daily problems. Parents and teachers need to normalize failure.

Colleges have been trying to reverse this trend by finding ways to normalize failure. “The Resilience Project” at Stanford University uses academic skills coaching, programs, events, and personal stories to support and motivate students while they go through normal setbacks. Smith College has a program they call “Failing Well,” which tries to increase a student’s resilience by telling students that failing isn’t a problem with learning, but it is just another feature. It isn’t something that needs to be eliminated. This means that teachers, parents, and students need to talk about mistakes, taking risks, and failing to begin the normalization process.

Using failure as a way to grow is starting to catch on within the business world as well. In 2009, some entrepreneurs created FailCon, a conference designed to share stories about the things that didn’t work. They would then study these failures so that they could create better successes.

We can find success in failing if we use it to learn from the experience and move on with more strength. The more important thing is the way we respond to what we think is failure. This means that parents and teachers need to be aware of these things when we support our children through challenging experiences.

It isn’t important for kids simply to fail, since this is inevitable. What is more important is the way your teenager reacts to what he or she perceives as failure. After a failure, the things they do let you gauge their resilience and self-esteem, and then you can work on building up these attributes.

If you are a teacher or parent, look at how your student or child reacts to any kind of failure. Then ask yourself these questions:

• Do they only do things that they know they can excel at?

• If they do have a setback, do they immediately blame it on others or do they make themselves feel shameful?

• Do they avoid specific activities because they are afraid they will fail?

• Do they give up instead of trying it again?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, your teen might need to change the way they look at failing.

Anytime we work toward a goal, encounter a failure, and keep going, we are building something called “grit.” Grit can be defined as: “Perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” People who have grit will be more successful with time. Grit can be used as a success predictor rather than talent.

The most important word in the paragraph above is “long-term.” You might have to fall down and get up many times to reach your goals, but this is how we grow as humans.

When people walk through life for a very long time before they encounter failure, they don’t have any practice at falling down and getting back up. There are many over-achievers who stumble through their teen years and have problems getting back up. These are known as “fragile perfects.” These people are very wonderful and bright students that know ways to succeed, but they don’t have the faintest clue how to fail.

Our goal as caring adults should be to help students change how they look at failure, making them healthier and happier.

Most students are afraid of failing. As teachers and parents, we want our children to succeed in life. What would happen if we saw failure as a critical and important step on the learning path?

Failure is necessary if we want to succeed. Our brains develop and grow when we encounter failure. If children understand this, amazing things will happen in their lives.

Failure is the best teacher. You need to celebrate it when it happens because you know that a brand-new opportunity has come to you.

Here are some ways you can celebrate your mistakes:

• Talk about the acronym for “FAIL” (First Attempt In Learning)

• Every day, find the best mistake that your child makes and highlight one concept about it that you think is important. Let your child discuss what went right when they made a mistake and then fix the thinking if they stumble.

• Give your children a “high-five” every time they make a mistake.

• Add “Failure Fridays” to your schedule. Take this day and read to them about a famous person who failed but didn’t let it stop them.

• Give your child an opportunity to brag to you about their mistakes and all the things they learned.

Once children realize that failure is just another stepping stone on their path to success, it will turn into something they appreciate instead of something they fear.

Failing is just another stage of learning. It is something to be embraced instead of feared. By having a growth mindset, children can learn ways to fail forward and benefit better from their experiences. If a child knows that every hard task or mistake can make their brain stronger, mistakes will soon be a reason to celebrate.

About the author

Joshua Sneideman is the VP of Learning Blade®, an online STEM and Computer Science Career awareness program utilized around the country to improve students understanding of the career pathways in STEM in grades 5-9. He is also a former Albert Einstein Distinguished Education Fellow and author of numerous STEM education books. Contact Joshua Sneideman at joshua@learningblade.com

 Follow Joshua on Twitter @STEMagogy

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