The Importance of Failure

27 Feb

The Atlantic Monthly published this article a few months ago on why parents should let children fail.

They identify an interesting key term in the article–“high responsiveness and low demandingness” parenting.  In other words, parents who are quick to intervene, support, rationalize, and fix problems for children, but rarely wait for (or demand that) the child solve the problem for him or herself.

Allowing children to navigate problems for themselves is a tricky business.  We certainly don’t want to be accused of being negligent parents (or teachers, coaches, etc), but it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of children learning how to resolve tough situations on their own.  Not only is practice the only way that children are going to internalize the ability to solve problems, but it also projects a confidence in their ability to do so.  When we swoop in and fix the problem, we’re also communicating the unspoken message, “I don’t think you can do this on your own.”

There’s a parallel situation in education, when we as teachers solve problems for our students.  This comes in a variety of situations–solving social problems, academic problems, emotional problems.   It all contributes to that deadly outcome of learned helplessness for children, where they stop believing they have efficacy or can make an impact on a situation.

So we know that rushing in to solve all of our students’ (or childrens’) problems is ill-advised, but what do we do about it?  It doesn’t make sense to sit back and say, “sink or swim!  Up to you!”

I’ve learned a few things that might help.  I’ll split them into categories (social and academic) for ease of reference.


I message, and Clean up

My grade level partner, Jenny, dragged me kicking and screaming into this one.  Social-Emotional teaching has never been my strong suit, and the idea of teaching children how to voluntarily describe their feelings and needs to each other was about the opposite of what I wanted to do.  After seven years, I finally came around to the idea.


The idea is remarkably simple.  Two posters on the wall share sentence stems for each child–the child who was hurt, and the child who was responsible.  The stems take them through the conversation, from how the hurt child felt, to what they need from people, to how the other child can resolve the problem.  The responsible child takes responsibility for the problem, and lets the hurt child know how they will change in the future.

Simple, no?  It seemed too simple.  Coming from an adult world, the idea that one person would just put right out for the world to see what made him vulnerable, and that the other would take responsibility and “make it right” seemed crazy.  The crazy thing is, it works!  It turns out, children are remarkably open and forgiving.  This has effectively eliminated most of the disputes and hurt feelings that occur on a day-to-day level in my room.  The best part is, my role has pretty much just been to help walk children through the stems–they did all the talking.

One important note: the “I message” part is supposed to be about what the hurt child needs–not about what the other child did.  For example, the child might say, “I feel hurt when people don’t invite me into their games.  I need people to include me and be friendly,” NOT “I felt hurt because YOU were mean and didn’t invite me.  I need YOU to let me play.”  See the difference?  One is universal, the other is personal.  This is biggest change for the way most children communicate.


Strategy work:  praise, prompt, reflect

Guided reading teachers will be familiar with this one.  The idea is that you praise children for being strategic, meaning trying a strategy, you prompt them to try strategies, and later on you ask them what strategy they tried, what helped them to be successful.

The idea is that if children are metacognitive, if they understand that they made choices which led to their success, they’ll be more likely to feel a sense of efficacy and to try something in the future when they get stuck.  The child who understands various decoding strategies, for example, is more likely to proactively problem solve when she comes to a word she doesn’t know.  The child who isn’t aware how she decodes words is more likely to give up.

Prompts for this might look like this:

Praise: You just found a little word you recognized inside that big word, and that helped you to solve it!

Prompt: Look for little words inside the big word.

Reflect: How were you able to solve that tricky word?

The praising and prompting portions help children to name the strategy they are using, so they’re more able to express what they tried when you ask them to reflect.

Praising, prompting, and reflecting also work well for encouraging positive character traits, such as working with children on building their perseverance, organization, etc.

Wait Time

Ruth Ayres just posted about the importance of wait time over at Two Writing Teachers, and her point is well taken in all academic areas.  So often the stress of too many children/subjects/goals and not enough time cause me to rush in to support a child who might not need a savior, just some moments.  I always mean to give wait time, and I usually do…but it might only be 5 seconds.  That feels like a long time when working with a student, but it’s not a lot of  time for them to think.  The moments I’ve been able to let kids think longer, they’ve usually risen to the challenge.  To use a reading example again, I’ll often have a student in my reading group who seems hopelessly stuck on a complex word.  I can feel the concern in me rise as I think, “this may be out of her reach, maybe I need to give a prompt to help her get started,” when low and behold, she does the work herself and nails it.  It’s a great feeling for them and for me, and it conveys the idea that you believe they can do it.

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