Written by Rhea-Leigh O’Shea
21st June 2022
The fear of failure is an unpleasant experience that many of us are all too familiar with. It affects confidence and performance in school, and even as adults many of us still fear failing. Yet, if we can better understand this fear, we can show children that failure is a crucial part of life. And it doesn’t have to be a negative, which will ruin their lives or prevent them from succeeding in the future. Instead, by undertaking six key stages we can break down the fear of failure. (1) We can lessen stress by having honest and open conversations about what failure means. (2) Show kids how to have a less rigid mindset. (3) Offer them support. (4) Allow them to fail so that they can learn from these experiences. (5) Help set realistic goals. And finally, (6) make them into problem-solvers and more resilient adults in the process. These six stages will prepare kids for future challenges. Showing them how to harness aspects of failure in a way that is positive for their academic and adult lives.
Be Open about Failure and Success
Firstly, we need to understand that we are often fearful of failure due to our how others view us. This can then affect how we view ourselves (Covington, 1984). We gain our ideas about academic success or failure from images online and in the media. Popular culture often shows images of a successful student with a great social life. In reality, navigating the education setting (at any age or level) can be fraught with stress and anxiety. This is a test for both students and their guardians. We should be happy and celebrate those who perform well, but we should also know that people have very different challenges in life skills. Many of us know (from our own experiences in education) that academic success is more complicated. It involves a lot of the student’s time and effort, combined by hours of encouragement and support from their parents (Chohan & Khan, 2010. P14). Our different life experiences mean that we should then, not expect all students to follow the same path with the exact same goals. We need to speak openly to students about their concerns and see what goals they have. Open dialogue and letting a child speak freely is one of the easiest ways of supporting a child and their education. We might find they have different goals and ideas of success to what we want for them. A clear understanding of this is important. It allows us to listen to the child, which will relieve much of their anxiety.
Mindset is Essential
After establishing the child’s views on success and failure, we may need to change our own views. Firstly, how we measure success is a complicated task. The previous example of a high-achieving student doesn’t always reveal the effort behind gaining such good grades. The importance of effort needs emphasizing, as applying yourself and working hard is one factor we need to encourage in all students. Yet, we shouldn’t have a rigid idea of this, nor should we have fixed ideas about a student’s intellect and ability. Mindset plays a role in how we approach this. Dweck (2006) explains that people either have a ‘fixed mindset’ where people believe these basic qualities are static and cannot be changed, whilst others have a ‘growth mindset’ where intelligence, personality, and abilities can be developed. Inkeri Rissanen et. al (2019) explains how important it is for adults (especially educators) to understand differences in mindset. They explain that adults can help children not to rely on their obvious talents. Instead, they show it’s also possible to develop a student’s less obvious skills through workshops, allowing for success in areas they also find a challenge.
Support Despite the Outcomes
Regardless of academic outcomes, we must support children if we want to limit anxiety and allow the student to reach their full potential. Chohan & Khan (2010, p.14) explain that parents can have a positive influence on their kids’ education. These achievements are often a result of supportive parents, who “are in a unique position to help, since their kids naturally rely on them for reassurance and protection.” (Hicklin, 2019; Chohan & Khan, 2010) We should make every effort to support kids and nurture their academic achievements as they grow. Yet, we are also warned about the dangers of micromanaging children. As parents may “lessen their anxiety at the time, they can also prevent the child from learning how to deal with their worries on their own as they get older.” (Hicklin, 2019) Essentially, there is a complex balance in letting the child feel supported. But, also leaving enough space for the child to make their own choices and deal with problems in a positive way.
Failure is an Option!
Even as adults, we don’t always succeed first time in every job promotion, driving test or exam. Yet, we preserver and attempt things again. Yes, it might be frustrating at times, but many of us understand it’s an important part of life and it’s how we deal with this negativity that defines us as people. We need to show children that they can make mistakes and failure is not a reason to give up. Cullins (2017) explains the positive impact that delayed wins can have for children. She suggests that this will serve to build their confidence and encourage them to approach new challenges. Further, this process lessens children’s fear and removes much of the negativity linked to failure. Dweck (2006) explains the benefits to encouraging children for their effort. As despite making mistakes, the kids were more willing to attempt harder tasks than those who were only praised for their ability. These discoveries show us that we should encourage children not to fixate on intellect. They should enjoy the learning process and attempt difficult tasks. Dweck (2006) explains that this is more important for their long-term goals. For some of us, we need to re-learn that not all failure is negative. As when supported by parents and teachers, it can be a positive influence in a child’s life and not something we need to fear.
Have Realistic Goals
If we are to face our fears of academic failure, both adults and children need to be realistic about educational goals. Also, we need to realize the time and effort needed to successfully achieve these. We want to prevent kids using what Covington (1984) calls ‘failure avoiding tactics’. This is where students create such difficult conditions that success is improbable. This type of approach is a form of self-defence, but it doesn’t allow the student to address tasks in realistic terms. As mentioned before, kids should feel supported by the adults around them. We should have open conversations about failure (thus, lessening this fear). Further, they should feel free to make mistakes during what are their formative years (Cullins, 2017). Students can then be accountable, applying their skills in a ‘safe’ setting (i.e. not the adult world) – which allows for plenty of chances to fail and succeed. Understanding this can address their worries in realistic ways. This helps students see how their own actions can be play a big role in their academic outcomes (Covington, 1984; Dweck, 2006).
Being kind is something most of us do daily, but many of us should probably be a bit kinder when thinking about ourselves. We’ve already found out that behind our fear of failure is how we see ourselves and how others accept us (Covington, 1984). Unfortunately, we cannot control what others think, so perhaps we should start with how we view ourselves. Kristin Neff (2009) advises us to use ‘Self-Compassion’. This focuses on self-kindness, rather than self-judgment as “Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail and make mistakes.” (Neff, 2009, p.212) So we shouldn’t link our self-worth with our results. Our imperfections are what connect us as people and are a crucial part of life. Further, these ideas tell us to be more accepting of our outcomes as it is almost impossible to avoid some sort of failure in life. As Covington (1984, p.12) explains, success is not always possible and “when failure does occur – as it will inevitably – it can be particularly devastating since it occurs despite high effort”. Such ideas clarify that even when we try very hard, it can be very disappointing when we don’t get the results that we want. We need to be ready for when our hard work isn’t always enough. And this is when we need to be more understanding and less critical of ourselves. Research shows this to have a positive impact. As people who are more self-compassionate, tend to recover quicker from failure as they “do not berate themselves when they fail, they are more able to admit mistakes, modify unproductive behaviors and take on new challenges” (Neff, 2009, p.213). Thus, through teaching children about the benefits of being nicer to ourselves, we can show them skills that will benefit them in the future.
We have found out that there are 6 key stages when overcoming the fear of failure. Firstly, we should have open and honest conversations about failure and what this means to each child. We can explain ideas of mindset. In particular, how there are different qualities other than just intellect. We can avoid micromanaging yet support children; and allow them to fail when they are younger and learn how this isn’t something we need to fear. Further, we can help kids learn how to set their own realistic goals and show the effort needed to achieve these. Finally, kids need to attempt tasks in a way that is self-compassionate. This will make them more resilient and confident students, who are able to understand some of the advantages of failure. Further, this will help kids to understand that we shouldn’t fear failure. As it doesn’t have to negatively impact their confidence and performance. Instead, it can even help make more confident students, who embrace challenges and help prepare kids to be well-adjusted adults in the future.
Rhea-Leigh O’Shea been a teacher since 2011. I have worked in Argentina, Italy, Sweden, Spain and throughout the United Kingdom. I have a Master’s in Global Political Science from Malmo University, Sweden.