“I’ll draw the margin in, then you add the numbers.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to cut out and glue that picture into your book?”
“Start there, copy the rest from the board!”
As educators, we ask our children lots of questions each day in the hope they will avoid making mistakes because we don’t have the time, or patience, to let the child try instead. But here’s a question we should be asking ourselves: should we let our children fail?
It’s a rather scary concept. As leaders, and as educators, we want to see our children succeed in everything they do, providing as much support as we can in schools for our pupils. And often, we utilise teaching assistants and sit them with our children helping them towards success with constant reminders, pointers, advice and prodding. They too often quickly jump in to rescue a child when they see a risk of failure, so that the child doesn’t feel left out or behind. But, especially in the long term, is that actually more detrimental?
We’ve all heard of “helicopter parents”, but are you in danger of running a “helicopter school”?
All teachers want to see children succeed, but it’s just as important to teach them how to fail. That is something we cherish at my prep school, preparing our pupils for failure as it helps them to succeed and foster a resilient character for the future. Failing can be reframed as trying, practising, and putting in effort — and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“Children who can’t tolerate failure are vulnerable to anxiety and it can lead to bigger problems later on.”
After all, it’s unrealistic to be good at everything on your first attempt, so at my school we actively encourage numerous attempts using different methods. Our aim is to instil an “I Can and I Will” attitude – in fact, it is even our school motto. Children who can’t tolerate failure are vulnerable to anxiety and it can lead to bigger problems when they do finally, inevitably, fail.
There is so much pressure placed on children today to be the best that it’s important that we, within our schools, let children know that failing will happen and that it is okay. In fact, it’s brave to try something new, knowing that it might not work out. Unfortunately, many of today’s pupils have received so much help from parents at home or teaching assistants in class; be it with school projects or just basic life tasks that they become distraught over the most minor misstep. It’s important to remember that genuine self-confidence is created by being good at something, especially when it requires effort to get good at it. Shielding children from this process can create a fragile sense of self-worth.
This is why teaching a child to be resilient and rebound from a failure is so important. The ability to recover from a setback is one of the keys to a successful and happy life. Being resilient doesn’t necessarily mean thriving in the face of failure; rather, it’s the ability to pick yourself up and put one foot in front of the other and go again. It is not an inborn trait; it’s a combination of behaviours, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed.
“It’s important to allow them to fail rather than swooping in and fixing the problem for them.”
Here are just some of the ways that we develop resilience and the “I Can and I Will” attitude:
*When we see that a child is struggling or having a difficult experience, we empathise with them. We focus on their feelings and use language like “I know you’re really disappointed and that you wanted to do better, but…” “ Can we look at another way to do this?” “Why don’t you ask your friend how they did it?”
*We explain to children that everyone fails and often offer examples about how this leads to learning. We model how to handle frustration and disappointment. Children are always watching and taking cues from peers and staff at school as well as their parents, so we encourage opportunities for them to actively fail, so they are prepared.
*We look at failure as a chance to teach a child a lesson about resiliency. We focus on discussion about what went wrong and use problem solving skills to come up with a plan for what to change for next time. This leads to a greater depth of understanding and a more consistent approach from the child.
*If at first you don’t succeed, try again. We constantly remind children that they can try again and use failure as a positive learning experience and something not to be feared. Last year we promoted a growth mindset theme in school where all staff and pupils had to learn a new skill (mine was juggling by the way). An assembly to display staff failing at their first attempt was instrumental in pupils watching us fail, it is not often that this happens in school.
*We believe in the power of yet and add it to every child’s frustrated attempts, such as; I can’t do it – yet, I’m no good at this – yet, this doesn’t make sense – yet.
Perhaps the most important thing we embrace is an ethos to step back and let a child stumble. We don’t helicopter over them constantly watching and assisting. We all want to protect children, to shelter and comfort them, but it’s important to allow them to fail rather than swooping in and fixing the problem for them. There is an abundance of independent learning at our school, which develops personal growth, through failure, that enables every single child to flourish and achieve.
In the words of Winston Churchill: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.