Most kids are afraid to fail and, as parents and teachers, we naturally want our kids to succeed. But what if we recognized failure is good and a crucial step on the path to learning?
Failure is a necessary component of success (NOT the opposite). In fact, our brains grow and develop in important ways whenever failures occurs. When kids understand this concept, amazing things can happen for them (and for us).
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Resilience expert Rachel Simmons says, “Think about your biggest mistakes….They probably taught you more courage, strength, and wisdom than any success could have.” Instead of letting children fear failure, we can help them see it for the learning opportunity it is.
Here are 7 ways to teach kids about the gift of failure, and how to do it skillfully:
1. Focus on Growth Mindset
We already know developing a growth mindset empowers kids. It also changes their reaction to failure.
A recent study published in Developmental Cognitive Science revealed that after making a mistake, children with growth mindsets show a larger brain response than those with fixed mindsets. They were also more likely to improve their performance as a result.
Failure is inevitable, but by focusing their attention on what went wrong and how they could fix it, kids with growth mindsets were able to turn failures into positive learning experiences.
2. Let Failure Happen
Kids benefit from experiencing failure. We know this and yet it’s hard for adults to accept. In fact, many parents equate good parenting with preventing their kids from struggling.
In The Gift of Failure, author and teacher Jessica Lahey details the consequences of this approach. She says challenging experiences are the only way we develop certain coping and problem-solving skills. If we shield children from adversity, key brain connections cannot develop.
“Allowing for small failures now teaches a child the skills to deal with, and perhaps even avoid, bigger ones later.”
- Jessica Lahey
To face our own fears about letting kids fail, Simmons suggests asking ourselves the following questions:
- How would I parent right now if I weren’t afraid (or anxious)?
- Are the consequences of the mistake permanent or life-threatening?
- What will he learn if I step back and allow this situation to unfold?
Give kids space to fail. They (and you) will become stronger for it. As they say, “Failure isn’t fatal.”
3. Embrace (and Celebrate) Failure
Failure is an excellent teacher. So why not celebrate each time it happens, knowing a new opportunity has just arrived?
Some ways to celebrate mistakes include:
- Giving kids an opportunity to brag about their mistakes and what they learned
- Introducing “Failure Fridays” (a day of the week when you read about a famous person who failed)
- Giving your child a high-five each time a mistake is made
- Using the “My Favorite No” activity. Each day, identify an especially good mistake your child makes (your favorite no), maybe one that highlights an important concept. Kids can discuss what went well within the mistake and the correct thinking in every stumble.
- Discussing the acronym for FAIL (First Attempt In Learning)
When kids recognize failure as just a stepping stone on the path to success, it becomes something to be appreciated rather than feared.
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4. Explain ‘The Learning Pit’
Stumbles are an essential stage in the learning process. Created by James Nottingham, "The Learning Pit" is a simple and effective way to frame this idea for kids.
When faced with a challenge, all of us must voyage into ‘the pit’ of uncertainty. Thoughts like “I have failed” or “I’m stuck” are just clues that deeper thinking and learning are happening.
“Do you get the sense of ‘Eureka!’ without having first struggled?” - James Nottingham
Teach children the ‘pit’ metaphor, and make it part of their daily vocabulary. For example, during a challenging activity, ask, “Who is in the pit? Who is out of the pit?”
In the classroom, kids in different stages can then be paired up to collaborate.
5. Explain the Brain Science
Kids typically fear failure. But what if they knew mistakes grew their brains? Happily, there’s tons of research to prove it and back you up!
Kids’ worries about failure can be general, like always wanting to be perfect, or more specific, such as wanting an A on their next test. Here are science-backed tips for discussing some specific (and common) fears:
If your child fears MAKING A MISTAKE...
- Every error he makes results in electrical signals firing that help him learn
- Discuss a study that proved his brain “sparks and grows” whenever he makes mistakes--and what it means about failure (Moser et al., 2011).
If your child fears MAKING A WRONG GUESS...
- Making guesses is one of the best ways to learn the material
- Making an incorrect guess she thinks is right and then being corrected is even better! Something about making the wrong guess and learning the right one makes it easier for her brain to recall the correct answer in the future.
If your child fears TACKLING DIFFICULT MATERIAL…
- When learning challenging material, it’s TRUE he (and everyone else) makes more errors
- It’s also true he retains the information better. In fact, the harder he has to work to understand something, the longer it lasts in his memory and the more deeply it’s processed
- Show this 2-minute video: Brain Jump With Ned the Neuron: Challenges Grow Your Brain
When kids understand the brain science behind why mistakes improve learning, it’s easy to get them excited about the prospect.
6. Emphasize “Failing Forward”
Failure is as valuable as it is inevitable. So rather than sheltering kids from it, use it to help them grow. Questions like, “What did you learn from this?” or “What would you do differently next time?” shift focus onto the positive aspects of failure.
Originally a business concept, failing forward simply means learning from your errors.
Professional Coach and parent Elaine-Taylor-Klaus suggests we teach our kids to “fail forward into life” by simply being there for them when they fall. As a parent of a child with special needs, she says, “Mistakes are human. They need our permission to be human.”
Other ways to fail forward include:
- Reading books like Mistakes That Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones
- Discussing lessons learned from your failures, such as greater compassion for others, knowing how to solve a problem, or even learning how to forgive yourself
- Proudly planning for future mistakes (“I can’t wait to see the other ways you learn to do this!”)
- Watching this 1-Minute Video: “How a Failed Invention Led to a Potentially Life-Saving New Idea”
Says Productivity Coach Lee Garrett, “We are not defined by how we fail. We are measured by how we rise.”
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7. Teach the Mindful Approach
Even with these strategies, failure can still be overwhelming sometimes. Training kids to take a mindful approach is key in dealing with any big emotion, like sadness or anger. With practice, kids can learn to respond to strong feelings about failure rather than simply reacting.
The link between mindfulness and resilience is very well documented. Recently, a study at Florida State University found mindful college students were more like to find benefit in adversity. When faced with perceived failure, they also remained confident in their academic abilities (Hanley et al., 2015).
So how can we help children establish a more mindful attitude?
Created by Michelle McDonald, the RAIN technique is a simple way for kids to notice and accept their feelings. Here are the four steps:
R-Recognize what is happening (“What is happening in this moment? How am I feeling?” “Where do I feel it in my body?”)
Example: “I’m so mad at myself for failing my spelling test. I want to cry.”
A-Allow life to be just as it is (“I can let the thoughts or feelings just be here. Even if I don’t like it.”)
Example: “I am mad and I feel like crying. It’s uncomfortable but I can allow myself to feel this way.”
I-Investigate with kindness (“Why do I feel this way?” “Is it really true?”)
Example: “I notice I’m also a little disappointed in myself too, not just mad. I’m wondering why? Maybe it’s because I think I could have studied more.”
N-Non-Identification (“I am having a thought or emotion, but I am not that thought or emotion.”)
Example: “I can have angry and disappointed feelings without being those feelings. I am bigger than how I feel at this moment.”
To practice the RAIN strategy, simply print the above steps and model it using one of your own failures. Then ask if your child would like to try this process with her recent mistake.
By taking a mindful approach, kids can learn to better accept and respond to failure, as well as their feelings associated with it.
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