Risk and Failure Have Lessons Students Need for College Success

By Caralee J. Adams — March 14, 2013 2 min read
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Not only is it OK to fail, it is part of the learning process, says author Debbie Silver of Melissa, Texas.

As a former teacher, university professor, and the author of Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed (2012, Corwin and AMLE), Silver said in a recent phone interview that too many young people have had the “boulders rolled out of their paths” and go off to college without the coping skills needed when things don’t go as expected.

“Let kids make mistakes,” urges Silver. And when they fail, ask: “What did you learn?” and “What will you do next time?”

Parents and teachers sometimes think they are helping when they cut kids slack, but rescuing doesn’t serve them in the long run, says Silver. The growing “entitlement mentality” among today’s generation of students can be countered, maintains Silver, if adults are more intentional in how they praise, encourage, and model behavior. Kids don’t need rewards, they just need adults to notice and raise the bar of high expectations.

Her book is full of real-life examples of how to respond to kids in ways that can equip them with resiliency. When a student turns in a paper late and offers an excuse, the teacher should be pragmatic and tell the student to try to make up the points later, rather than letting it go, says Silver. Parents, too, need to hold children accountable while pushing them to take risks. For instance, she says rather than taking less-challenging classes to maintain a grade point average, parents should support high school students to take rigorous courses even if they might fail.

Citing research of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and others, Silver emphasizes the need for adults to applaud children for learning and effort, over blanket compliments about being “smart.” One of her favorite adages: “Anything easily attained is cheaply held.” Students need to hear stories from adults about when those adults struggled and how they coped.

When she asks groups to think of a time when they did something they never thought they could do before, Silver says people often smile. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world—to work really hard at something. We are robbing kids of that,” she says.

As a result, many young people have no self-efficacy and have developed a “learned helplessness,” says Silver. That can translate into A’s and F’s in college, as students either get the material or they don’t know how to address the competencies they lack.

Even when students hit the wall in college, Silver cautions parents not to rush in with open arms or a checkbook. Instead, she suggests asking the young adult: “What can you do about that?” and let them come up with a plan.

An excerpt of Silva’s book is on the website of the Association for Middle Level Education.

For more on the issue, see how life skills are increasingly a part of college readiness and schools are turning to character education to help students succeed.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.