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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Failure Is Inevitable, Plan Accordingly

By Peter DeWitt — June 14, 2015 5 min read
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Some children feel very unwanted by their parents, and even by their schools. They grow up in households where harsh words and physical punishment are handed out daily, and they attend schools that focus more on compliance than creativity. These children don’t often hear kind words, and they lack a supportive adults.

When they fail, it is expected.

Sometimes even the adult they live with make them feel as though they will never succeed, and it’s very difficult for children to become resilient in those circumstances.

Some children are much more fortunate. They live in supportive households, but they often receive trophies just for showing up to competitions. Unfortunately, as much as they were born into overly-supportive families, they are given the false sense that everyone wins...all the time. When they don’t win, because we know that we cannot always win, they walk away feeling as if the world failed them in some way.

Other children grow up in much more stable and realistic homes. Their parents talk them through their hard times and prepare them for failure. Those supportive parents understand that everyone fails, and it’s what you do about the failure that matters. Children growing up in these families learn about resilience. Miller-Lewis et al (2013) says, “Supportive child-parent relationships characterized by warmth and closeness have been found to consistently predict mental health resilience in children” (p.3).

We have children growing up in homes where failure is prevented at every moment, and other children who find failure around every corner. The one thing they have in common is that at some point they all face adversity. Miller-Lewis et al (2013) go on to say,

There is great individual variation in children's response to adversity, and many children exposed to adversity escape relatively unscathed and instead function adequately. Resilience refers to this process of positive adaptation despite exposure to significant adversity" (p.2).

Is it really possible to face adversity or learn from failure? If children fail, can we educate them on how to be resilient so that the failure they face isn’t so paralyzing? Suniya et. al. says,

“The term “resilience” should always be used when referring to the process or phenomenon of competence despite adversity, with the term “resiliency” used only when referring to a specific personality trait” (p.16. 2000). Can we be resilient in the face of failure? Or, do we have to be Social Darwnists where the cream rises to the top and only the strong survive.

Failure is an interesting topic, because adults don’t like to talk about their own, but they do like to talk about the failure of others. Political campaigns, the media, reality television; they all like to focus on other people’s failures and shortcomings; much more than they ever acknowledge their own. It’s like they enjoy pointing at others or they get some sort of pleasure out of watching someone else fail. As much as the media likes to say the public likes a good comeback story, they certainly seem like they enjoy watching someone hitting rock bottom just as much.

In our own lives, if we failed in our past we try pretend that it never happened. It’s easier not to talk about it. We put it behind us never to acknowledge it again. Perhaps it was an important test we failed or a job that didn’t work out. Sometimes we fail in an interview and do not end up getting the job. Everyone fails. They make mistakes, hurt feelings, self-destruct because of their own behavior. As much as we may like to discuss the failure of others we need to talk about our own.

Teaching Kids About Failure

There are many ways to fail, and the issue with failure is that it affects people differently. Some people react badly to the smallest of failures, which is why we often say we shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff.” Other times people react well even if they are failing in a major way. Perhaps they lost their job, but instead of looking at it as a negative there are individuals who view their job loss as the reason to reinvent themselves.

At a young age children fail. Perhaps it’s when they’re learning to walk and they keep trying until they get up and can walk on their own. As they get older, and can verbalize their feelings, children will potentially fail in many different areas. Perhaps they can’t ride their bikes without training wheels or they fail to hit the ball when playing on a baseball team. Those are all issues that we can learn from and we often look to our parents to help get us through those tough moments.

Adults can make or break how children view failure. Sometimes adults contribute to negative attitudes about failure by telling children it’s not their fault and blaming it on others. Instead of discussing failure, they ignore it and point fingers expecting an innocent bystander to take responsibility. In sports they blame it on the referee or the umpire. They deflect failure as if they’re a superhero, but unfortunately that only shelters children from an opportunity to learn.

Instead of protecting students from failure, especially if they at high risk, we have to teach them that it is a natural part of life. One of the ways they can better handle the failure that we all experience, is to teach them the coping skills they need to move forward. Without coping skills, life becomes a series of negative events.

Social Emotional Needs of Students

Another way for teachers to teach students about failure is through the use of social stories. Social stories are often seen as a way to teach students with Autism better social skills, but the truth is that social stories will work for any students. Using the social story intervention, a teacher sits down with the student who is having an issue and they develop a story together that mirrors the issue the student is having. Writing a social story around failure is a way for students to learn problem solving skills. Cicchetti says,

Problem-solving skills, foresight in planning, and a future orientation (all linked to executive functions), active coping strategies, and the capacity to confront fears directly, minimizing denial, disengagement, and avoidant coping have all been associated with resilient functioning. Moreover, optimism, positive emotionality, perceiving stressful occurrences in less threatening ways and the ability to reframe adverse experiences in a positive vein, spirituality, and being able to find meaning amidst trauma have each been linked to resilience (pp. 6&7)

In the End

Everyone fails at something in life. We know that truly full and enriching lives may bring us a series of failures. If you live a life where you take risks, there is a greater chance that you will experience failure. Unfortunately, educators see students who are at greater risk of failure every year, not because they take healthy risks, but because they are growing up in families where abuse is commonplace or families that try to shelter them from making mistakes.

Miller-Lewis et al (2013) says, “Boosting positive child-adult relationships, self-concept and self-control as resources in early childhood may hold promise for helping children establish a firm foundation that will carry them forward into healthy futures, regardless of what adverse family circumstances come their way” (p.19)” Schools have a real opportunity to do this with children. Through the use of advisory groups, school assemblies and using children’s literature, educators can help students work through failure and find resiliency.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.