A Little Failure Can Make a Big Difference in Helping Your Child Succeed

Frequent tries - and some failure - are important aspects of learning.

Posted Mar 26, 2012

If you want to help your kids succeed in school and feel more confident, focus on the upside of failure. Yes, you read that right. According to researchers at the University of Poitiers in France, children will perform best when they are told that frequent tries and even occasional failure are normal (and important) aspects of learning.

Researchers suggest that there's a vicious cycle taking place in the classroom. Instead of seeking new information with enthusiasm and interest, many children are afraid to fail so they're reluctant to challenge themselves. What's more, they often assume tasks should come easy to them. If new tasks aren't mastered quickly, students may be quick to give up and quick to assume they aren't capable. When fear of failure keeps kids from trying to tackle difficult problems, the learning process is disrupted and self-confidence can take a hit. 

In a study published online in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that students are more likely to succeed simply when parents and teachers reassure them that trying -- and sometimes failing -- is part of how we learn.  

Study Results

In one experiment, over one hundred sixth grade students were divided into two groups and given difficult anagram problems that none of them could solve. A researcher then spoke with the students about the difficulty of the problems. One group was told that learning is difficult and failure is common, and that practice would help them do better on the tasks - just like practice helps when learning to ride a bike. Children in the other group were simply asked by the researchers how they tried to solve the anagrams.

Both groups were then given a second series of tests. Those students who were told that learning can be tough and that failure is a normal part of the process performed significantly better on measures of cognitive abilities than the other group of students. 

In a separate experiment, two groups of sixth graders were given a reading comprehension test and later asked questions about how they judged their own academic competence. One group was given the message, in advance of the test, that that learning can be difficult. The other group wasn't given any feedback.  The children who were told that learning can be challenging not only performed better on reading comprehension scores, but also reported fewer feelings of incompetence.

These studies suggest there may be important advantages to sending kids the message that learning new things can be difficult, and that learning takes time and repeated practice. This information can actually boost confidence, reduce fear of failure, and ultimately improve performance.

What You Can Do

There are specific things parents and teachers can do to enhance learning and promote success.

–Be a role model. Whether you're attempting a new recipe or learning how to use a new electronic gadget, encourage your children to observe your progress. And be sure to share how you cope with the inevitable challenges. For example, when a cake doesn't turn out the way you had hoped, you might say something like, "It's not the way I wanted it to be, but I tried my best. And I'll definitely try again!"   

–Emphasize the process. Rather than waiting for a successful outcome of a task, focus on the process of learning and the joy and satisfaction that can come with mastering small steps along the way. For example, if your child is learning a new language, don't wait for fluency to say, "Great job!" Instead, celebrate the fact that she has learned 10 new vocabulary words in a language she's never spoken before. Or notice her efforts at diligently memorizing those complicated new grammar rules.

*Provide space for learning. When your son or daughter is faced with a challenging assignment or a difficult new task (whether it's in school, on the sports field, or in a music class), resist the urge to immediately jump in and make it easier. Give your child a chance to tackle the challenge independently, to practice, and to try different approaches. Of course, if your child is regularly struggling or feeling overwhelmed, seek additional support.

–Look for teachable moments. When your child has difficulty with a new task or skill, talk with him about what he's learning from the experience - and ask what he might try differently next time. Help him brainstorm various strategies to accomplish his goals.   

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About the Author

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development.

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