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Here’s how parents and teachers can help students overcome their fear of failure

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. Source: Shutterstock

As digital natives, today’s students have a lot to worry about. 

They live in an age where they can learn what their friends and classmates are up to at the simple touch of a screen. This makes social comparisons easy but with potentially damaging effects to one’s self-esteem, especially if they’re not reaching the same ‘milestones’ as their friends.

Author and psychotherapist Amy Morin notes on Inc that many of today’s adolescents are anxious for various reasons, some of which include receiving unrealistic praise from their parents that can “lead to a crippling fear of failure or rejection”, while shielding their children from the vicissitudes of life means they have less time dealing with its often trying realities. 

In Tes, headteacher Jarlath O’Brien said many students who came to his school with behavioural issues were in fact “expert failure avoiders”. 

“They would walk out of lessons or fail to arrive in the first place. They would rip up work at the first sign of a mistake, or proclaim loudly ‘I’M NOT F*****G DOING IT!’ The extreme language may shock, but it has the desired result: to get out of this situation as quickly as possible. Highly inappropriate but exceptionally effective,” he wrote. 

“Many of them had spent long periods experiencing feelings of inadequacy or failure and they were sick of it. This is not to blame their teachers. They were fed up with their mates seemingly mastering things with ease while they were still struggling with what looked like the basics and they weren’t keen on advertising this to everyone.”

While failure is part and parcel of life – in addition to acting as an important learning curve – those who actively avoid failure may inadvertently set themselves up for failure. 

Overcoming failure

So how can parents and teachers play a role in helping students overcome their fear of failure?

A safe haven in classrooms

O’Brien notes that it’s important for educators to ensure that their classrooms “were places where it was safe to have a go. Safe because, although failure, struggle and persistence were expected daily occurrences, the children needed to be convinced that they would be met with unstinting support. This categorically did not mean doing it for them. Eventually I summed this up to the children, colleagues and parents in a simple way: ‘We’re here to catch them, not catch them out.’”

Be a good role model

Parents who have experienced failure can use the experience to teach their children that failure doesn’t have to define them. 

Instead, model good behaviour by showing your kids that failure should be taken in their stride. While failure can evoke feelings of embarassment or inferiority, it also acts as a learning experience that will help you grow if you take the time to reflect on your mistake(s) and identify where or how you could do better next time.

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, after all. 

Laud their effort

Regardless how old one gets, experiencing failure doesn’t always get easier with time. 

As parents or teachers, it’s easier to berate a child for not succeeding on their first try. However, no one strives for failure, so it’s important to acknowledge the effort a student makes to encourage them to persevere and try harder next time. 

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