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Why Preventing Failure Hurts Learning

Fresh Perspective for Parents, Guardians, and Educators.

This semester, I was asked to help numerous students who were failing in school. During intake sessions with my students and their parents, we discussed how we would define success. Some of my students had starting grades in the 30s and 40s. What would it mean if a student brought the 35 to a 65? Would that be a failure? Or a success?

Twenty years of working with students and parents, combined with my background as an educational psychologist, have given me a different perspective on “success” and “failure.” Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s an integral part of success, and absolutely essential to learning

For a lot of parents, this reframing of failure is a huge shift. Maybe you’re familiar with the way failure is framed in Silicon Valley where it’s encouraged to “fail fast,” “fail forward,” or “fail better.” If you’re not taking risks in Silicon Valley, and risking failure, then you are unlikely to create a revolutionary product. 

However, when it comes to our children, many of us have a very different perspective, and in many cases will go to great lengths to protect them from the short-term pain that can accompany failure. 

Every parent grapples with the “assistance dilemma” over when to intervene and when to allow frustration and setbacks to occur. Do I bring the assignment to school that my daughter left on her desk or let her face the consequences of leaving it at home? Do I push my son to finish his college applications or risk missing deadlines? 

It’s not easy. And every situation demands its own nuanced understanding: what skills does the student currently have, and what is the “just right” amount of support to help them grow? We must adapt as our children develop. The key thing is to remember that allowing our kids to fail, when appropriate, can actually support their long-term development into competent, autonomous, and successful adults.

Reframing failure 

Researchers in education and in psychology have highlighted the importance of working through challenges to develop resilience, creative problem solving, cognitive flexibility, resourcefulness, and self-belief. 

 Albert Bandura’s research speaks to the importance of mastery experiences and overcoming challenges to build self-efficacy and self-esteem. 

Thanks to Carol Dweck, we know how important it is to have a growth mindset that makes room for mistakes and even failures as part of a developmental path towards growth and progress. 

Martin Seligman’s research reveals the secrets of optimists – viewing setbacks and failures as limited and specific rather than as reflections of permanent, personal or pervasive deficits

Angela Duckworth, who originally studied under Seligman, brought the idea of “grit” into the mainstream. Thanks to her work, we know that challenges and setbacks make us stronger, and more likely to persevere in the future. Duckworth warns that people who never experience failure can develop into “fragile perfects” who are more likely to crumble, when adversity or true challenges emerge. 

These researchers and many others have taught us that failure is not something to be feared, but something that can build character, self-trust, and a reservoir of inner resources.

But sometimes parents develop the habit of swooping in to save their kids at the earliest signs of stress or distress. The potential harm was never going to be catastrophic, but, by jumping in, the parents send the message to their children that they are incapable of working through their own challenges or struggles. 

Putting “failure” and “success” in context 

When we define “success” for a particular student, we have to consider the context – what’s going on in the student’s life, their strengths, and challenges. School is one piece of the puzzle, but there are other, behind-the-scenes, factors affecting student performance: family dynamics, personal challenges, losses, disappointments and all the things that make us human. We bring our whole selves to school, and our grades exist in the context of all that is happening in our lives. 

My students this past semester included a high school freshman who was on the cusp of failing most of his classes and repeating the ninth grade or changing schools, a sophomore, who had been an A student pre-pandemic, but was on the verge of failing classes because she couldn’t finish assignments, and a a senior, who, after a year of remote learning, had so many incomplete assignments that he was at risk of not graduating or having his college acceptance rescinded. The ultimate goal is to help these students succeed with a capital “S,” but first they needed some small, attainable wins to put them back on track

For my freshman, we defined success very simply: advance to the 10th grade. Being held back would have likely diminished his academic self-concept and led him to question whether he belonged in his advanced school. My sophomore was hoping to bring her Cs back to Bs, and her Bs to As while maintaining a GPA that wouldn’t hurt her college prospects down the road. My senior just needed to graduate and keep his college acceptance. Each student’s goals were specific, clear, and – most importantly – realistic in light of their starting point and the time they had available to improve.

Sometimes Failure is the Best Teacher

A student may “succeed” academically in such a way that is detrimental to their development, or “fail” in a way that sets them up for a better future. 

My senior, in spite of failing one class, will graduate and matriculate to college in the fall. Accustomed to getting As and Bs, he was shaken by his first F in high school. I pushed him hard to reframe the F. What did you learn? How will this affect your approach in the fall once you’re in a college setting? The F itself was of little practical consequence – he had not lost his college acceptance and his high school GPA would effectively disappear once he moved on to college. What mattered was what he did with the F, and how it could help him modify his future behaviors.

The “F” taught my senior he had made too many assumptions without clarifying them. He had assumed the teacher would allow him to turn in late work for full credit, but he hadn’t verified that. He had simply accrued too many late assignments for his teacher to give him a passing grade. This was painful, but the hurt was important, maybe even necessary for him to learn an important lesson. Absent that failing grade, there was a much higher chance my student would bring his same behaviors forward to college, where the consequences would be more significant. 

My sophomore easily passed all of her classes, but ended up with her first C in high school in a demanding AP class. As with my senior, I helped my sophomore reflect on what she had learned. If she could take the class again, what would she do differently? And what strategies will she use when she begins her more academically rigorous junior year? Getting a C wasn’t the original plan, but it may lead to her best academic year as a junior.

My freshman is advancing to 10th grade, but having failed a couple of classes, he will spend a month or so in summer school. When I processed the end of the year with his mom, she was focused on the positive changes she saw in her son. He was taking more ownership of his school work and making better decisions about his time. After exams, he realized that the material itself was manageable; he could master his classes if he used the new organizational skills he’d learned. Going forward he would need to change his approach to managing his time more skillfully, but he now knew he had everything he needed to succeed in school. This gain in insight and skill was a much bigger win than any GPA for a single semester.

Facing these disappointments and processing them, my students had a chance to learn important lessons that will serve them in college and beyond. These experiences also helped them build a bit more grit and resilience.

Building Grit and Resilience in Our Kids and Ourselves

Working with these students, I’ve had the opportunity to step into the shoes of parents everywhere. I was emotionally invested in the success of my students. I had to step back, as parents must step back again and again, and allow the students to go through their process, on their own timelines. With some perspective, thinking in terms of years and even decades, I came to see these temporary setbacks my students faced as key to their development. 

To build more resilient, competent, creative adults, we need to make room for failure and reflection. Adopting a developmental perspective takes some of the pressure off getting the exact right GPA, or level of academic rigor, or test score, or admissions essay or college acceptance. If we think about building competent, capable adults, who can manage the inevitable setbacks and frustrations that accompany life, we will be able to shepherd our students through their challenges with more grace and compassion. 

If you’re looking for a practical way to get started, follow the example of entrepreneur Sara Blakely and think about how you can reframe failure in your family. Growing up, her father would ask her at the dinner table what she’d failed at that week. He encouraged her to take on new challenges and not be afraid to fail in the process. So, what did you fail at this week? 

If you are looking for further reading on this topic, consider the following titles:

  • Wendy Mogel: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
  • Jessica Lahey: The Gift of Failure
  • Julie Lythcott Haims: How to Raise an Adult
  • Angela Duckwork: Grit
  • Carol Dweck: Mindset

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