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Best Practices in Education,

When Failure is Lurking, Will Your Students Choose Fight or Flight?

Learning to Face a Challenge

How often do you see students give up when things get difficult? The fear of failure is so overpowering that they'd rather throw in the towel without trying than overcome obstacles or learn from their mistakes. This leaves them with nothing to take away from an experience but a negative attitude. We have to prepare our students with the strategies and mindset to face challenges and refuse to accept a defeatist attitude.

[image: young boy looking overwhelmed, reading books]
by wecometolearn / Some rights reserved

For those students that typically breeze through school, encountering a challenging activity or difficult subject matter can be like hitting a brick wall. Until students experience failure or difficulty, they don't know how to deal with it. Sometimes this lesson can come way too late. I've seen top performing students reduced to tears when they encounter a tough assignment, or even top athletes dissolve when they are matched with more skilled competitors. Some kids simply don't know how to enter a difficult situation and, regardless of the outcome, come out of it with a lesson learned and a positive attitude.

Putting a Door in the Brick Wall

The Gift of Failure: 50 Tips for Teaching Students How to Fail Well from informED1 shares a bevy of great tips for preparing students for the inevitable tough tasks they will encounter as they learn. Many of the tips speak to building confidence in our students and praising their accomplishments. I especially like the ideas presented in #19 and #37. Knowing when it's time to start fresh and begin from the beginning can be a tough concept for kids that think they can get it right on the first try. As we build their confidence and help them believe in themselves, they'll start to see anything is possible.

The lessons that come with failure don't need to be learned by getting an F on a report card or being a part of a losing team. We just need to prepare students for a fight rather than flight approach when things get difficult. We have to challenge our top students with activities where they won't always get the correct answer on the first try. When they accept the challenges of learning and are willing to embrace an if at first you don't succeed, try, try again attitude, they will be ready to face the rigors of a demanding curriculum with a new mindset.

We can't teach to the middle and expect our struggling students to find success or our top performers to be engaged in their learning.This is where differentiating your instruction will benefit all of the learners in your classroom. If students never have to rise to the occasion, they won't know how to handle themselves when they are called to do so. We can't teach to the middle and expect our struggling students to find success or our top performers to be engaged in their learning. Our students that are challenged to bring 100% to the table on a consistent basis will be the ones who find the most success outside of the classroom.

It's the kids who truly understand the meaning and value of putting in hard work that will apply this mindset to everything they do. I've seen it with my students and my own kids. Larry Ferlazzo couples a short video clip of U.S. Olympic bobsledder Yolo Jones with a writing prompt that allows students to visualize and internalize the concept of facing challenges with a positive attitude2. As students start to find the doorways in those brick walls, they will begin to rise to the occasion rather than be deterred when things get tough.

Finding Manageable Milestones

We also need to teach our students to break down tasks and concepts that can at first seem overwhelming. By helping students pay attention to detail and pull apart the components of large projects or even essay questions, they can find meaning in manageable milestones and envision their final product. Outlining a time management framework for completing these tasks will also help them put aside the angst that can accompany an arduous activity. Students who are able to chunk learning goals and follow a steadily paced timeframe will carry these skills with them far beyond the walls of the classroom.

Cancel the Flight

If students never flirt with failure, they won't know the true meaning of success. We must prepare our students to bring a proper mindset to any obstacles they may face in learning and in life. When failure is lurking, be sure your students are equipped with the tools to put up a fight!

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

Additional Resources & Works Cited

1. The Gift of Failure

2. A failure isn't a failure if it prepares you for success tomorrow. (video & writing prompt)


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