3 proven ways to help students who can't cope with failure

3 proven ways to help students who can't cope with failure

There should be more failure in schools.

(I should probably explain…)

Students who can’t cope with feelings of failure lack ‘stick-it-at-ness.’  They cry, melt down or engage in task avoidance rather than risk making mistakes.

And this can have a huge impact on classroom behaviour.

But is failure bad?

Handled in the right way, failure teaches tenacity and resilience.

I’m not talking about endless failure, here.  That hopeless lack of success that goes nowhere and crushes your soul.

I’m interested in the kind of failure that’s actually a stepping stone to improvement.  After all, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning anything new.

You’re just practising something you can already do. This goes for learning something new academically, behaviourally, socially or emotionally.

This is a lesson that many of our pupil’s have yet to absorb.

For them, failure fires strong emotions and they lack the ability to manage them. And with more challenging students, fireworks often follow.

The solution? They need an adult to help them understand failure and translate it.  Turn it from a negative to a positive.  (If you’re interested in this topic, be sure to check out our 5 must-read articles about boosting emotional resilience.)

But… how exactly do you do that in the classroom?

Here are three proven ways to help students who can’t cope with failure.

Praise the effort rather than the outcome

In his short YouTube video

">a study on praise and mindsets, Trevor Rogan explores Carol Dweck’s theories about how praise can encourage children to cope with failure… and improve their attainment as a result.

The takeaway is: as an educator, be careful what you praise…

…because our use of language can have an amazing/devistating effect.

Dweck suggests that by using praise intentionally, we can encourage students to see failure as a necessary step in the learning process.

In the classroom, this means giving praise for effort rather than achievement.  For engaging in the process.  For tenacity.

Here’s an example.

When we praise a child for reading a book perfectly, we are showing them we value the outcome (perfection).

This actually discourages them from taking risks such as reading harder books.  Because, if the student doesn’t achieve perfection, the praise might disappear.  We may even respond with disapproval.

And when they do encounter difficulties with a text, they’re much more likely to experience strong emotions around failure.

Instead, if we give praise to the pupil for having tried hard to read the book, even though they found some bits difficult, we’re showing that we value the process (effort).

This encourages them to see their mistakes in a different light.  Their errors are a natural part of the learning process. It’s the journey, rather than the destination, that’s important.

And what we valued was not getting a perfect score, but how they reacted to adversity.  Their resilience.  How they handled their emotions.

Discourage perfectionism

In her article, The Gift of Failure, Lisa Chesser provides 50 tips for teaching students how to fail well.

For me, of all the points she raises, that of discouraging perfectionism is the most important.

This is a particular issue for many students with autism.

Students with autism will often have strong anxieties about making mistakes.  Their anxiety levels can skyrocket when they see an error in their work – leading to very challenging behaviour.

Here’s an example:

Our student is completing a piece of work in pen.

They invest twenty minutes writing only to make a mistake near the bottom of the page.  That’s a mistake that they can’t erase.  This leads to a huge rise in their anxiety levels.

The result can be a meltdown.  They may insist on ripping the page out of their exercise book so they can start again – or future task avoidance.

And then the bell for the end of the lesson sounds!  But because they had to start over, the work is unfinished…  So now it’s even more imperfect.

All of which feeds future anxiety…

Not all students with autism have issues around perfectionism. But if you have students in your class who find making mistakes emotionally challenging, and they can’t get past it, here are two quick solutions:

  • give them the option to write in pencil (they come with erasers!) or on dry wipe boards (photograph their writing to get a permanent record)
  • get them to experiment with failure (encourage them to make one mistake in their work on purpose; say you’ll skip that item when you mark the book; then ask them how that felt, what was the worst outcome they feared, and did their fears come true)

Tell them… expect to fail

In her article, Teaching children it’s OK to fail, Dr. Jamie Howard says that we should teach children it’s unrealistic to be good at everything on your first go.

She suggests that many children receive so much help from their parents that they can’t handle minor mis-steps in the learning process.

But the solution isn’t to protect them from failure.  It’s to help them understand it – and handle their emotions when it happens.

In the classroom, this means we shouldn’t solve the problem on behalf of the student.  We help them explore it instead.

In the first instance, this means empathising with their emotions.  This shows that you understand the frustration / anger / resentment the student is experiencing – and say that this feeling is normal.

Tell the student we can’t help how we feel – but we can help what we do about it.

Next, remind the student that everyone fails – and they’re no different.  Remind them of the story of Thomas Edison, who tried over 700 times to create the perfect filament for a lightbulb.

(“I have not failed,” he said to a reporter.  “I’ve just found 700 ways that won’t work.”  And, obviously, each failure was a necessary step towards his eventual success.)

Dr. Howard recommends asking the student to analyse whatever is causing their frustration.  To brainstorm different solutions to the problem and come up with alternative plans. This doesn’t have to be an academic problem they’ve found frustrating – it could be a social situation.

This helps them to take a step back from their problem – to look at it logically, rather than emotionally.

As an educator, this has transformed our role to guiding the child through failure, rather than rescuing them from it…

…teaching them the coping skills they need to deal with adversity in the future.

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