What happens when a student fails?

And by fail, I don’t necessarily mean getting an “F” on an assignment; I mean when they try their best on a word problem, project, essay, lab, etc., and either are unable to complete the task or get a grade lower than they expected.

For many students, this feels like failure, and when they fail, they walk away with the belief that they are not good at whatever skills and knowledge sets were necessary for the task.

For many students, this experience reinforces what they already “knew” about themselves — perhaps they are “bad at math” or “just can’t write essays.” Their failure often leads them to create a script whereby future failure is expected, and therefore less hurtful.

But what would happen if we (parents and teachers) helped them flip their perspective? Perhaps they haven’t failed. Maybe they just aren’t finished learning yet.

We need to remind them that being challenged helps them grow and that when being challenged, sometimes they will be lucky enough to fail. Failing — or at least struggling mightily — is where the learning begins.

Unbeknownst to them, students are all enrolled in a class called “Building Tenacity” and the students who excel in this class are the ones who understand that failure is temporary. They can go back and not just redo an assignment to learn from their academic errors but, more important, they can reevaluate their strategies for learning, for dealing with frustration, asking for help, and evaluating their end project.

Stanford professor and author Carol Dweck is perhaps most famous for addressing many of these skills in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Dweck argues that students benefit from having parents and teachers who believe that they are not simply “good at math” or “bad at writing” but that instead, their capacities in any area can grow.

As parents and teachers, we can help them to do this by encouraging them to challenge themselves and, when they don’t get the results they hoped for, by helping them to build their tenacity. Dweck says that we must help students view effort as a positive experience, view challenging tasks (both academic and social) as problems to be solved rather than another proof of failure, and see education as a way to achieve their future goals. Those goals are not college (which is just more education); they are meaningful jobs, positive family and social relationships, and becoming contributors to their community.

So how do we do this? The Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Westchester in the UK lays out four areas in which we can help our children/students build these capacities:

Confidence

We can help them be confident and oriented towards learning rather than performing (i.e., getting good grades). We can encourage students to seek out academic challenges to stretch themselves even if they risk a lower grade. With the guidance of the adults in their lives, they can learn self-evaluation and the skill of making a plan to do better.

Control

We can help them learn and practice self-regulation. Parents and teachers can help students learn when, where, and how they learn best. Do they need to do their homework immediately upon arriving home? In multiple short sessions or one long session? Help them figure out what works, make a plan and stick to it.

Commitment

We can help students to learn to be committed by talking about our failures. Most of us have made mistakes and failed at things but our commitment eventually led to improvement and maybe even excellence.

The first time I went running, I was miserable after 90 seconds and quit after 17 minutes. I stuck with it and eventually ran races, including two marathons, and continue to run — and enjoy it — more than 20 years after that first miserable attempt.

Connection

We can help students create and value supportive connections through seeking feedback, finding opportunities to learn from peers, and joining groups that support their interests, all of which helps them improve their learning.

In the end, we want to teach kids that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. It is not an end point but a beginning.

If we all remember that grades are merely an assessment of where a student is in the learning process, we can help students build tenacity, see the opportunities that challenges afford them and, ultimately, embrace the room for growth failure offers rather than fear the possibility of failure.


By Claire Concannon

Ms. Concannon teaches English in the Upper School.