Navigating Failure with Adolescents

by Dr. Nicole Pourchier, middle school principal at LCA

As someone who works and lives with middle schoolers, I spend a lot of time observing kids as they make the difficult transition from child to teen. One adolescent milestone is an increased focus on how they are perceived by their peers, which leads to new learning opportunities and challenges. This intense social awareness can cause kids to avoid experiences in which they might not succeed, but failure is vital to the learning process.

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When we fail, we learn valuable knowledge about a particular subject or skill. For example, if you’ve ever tinkered with computer code, you’ve experienced the frustration of searching for the evasive bug that’s causing the entire program to malfunction. After painstakingly reviewing lines of code, you finally find the mistake and—voila—you learn a piece of coding knowledge that you’ll always remember. In addition to learning new information, we also develop perseverance, resilience, and creativity when we fail.

Despite all the obvious benefits, our natural instinct is to avoid situations where we have limited chances to succeed. Since failing can seriously damage a middle schooler’s social status, adults must be strategic about how we encourage and support kids in failing. Here are three ways you can encourage healthy failure with your child:

  1. Seek out safe opportunities for kids to fail. As adults, we can encourage kids to engage in activities and challenges that are safe spaces to experience failure. It might be too much to force them to try out for the school talent show, but maybe they could try out a new move on the soccer field, even if it means missing a goal.

  2. Expect kids to fail and praise them for trying. I once read an interview with Atlanta-based entrepreneur, Sara Blakely. As the founder of Spanx, a billion-dollar women’s apparel brand, she attributes her willingness to take risks with lessons her father taught her about failure. Every evening, Blakely’s father would ask her, “What have you failed at this week?” Her father did not center his praise on how she was succeeding, but instead, he praised her for trying and learning from her mistakes. Blakely learned that failure was not something to avoid, but rather, a valuable learning experience that she should seek out in her daily life. Just imagine the possibilities if we developed similar attitudes toward failure in our homes.

  3. Be explicit about how to learn from failure. If we want kids to view failure as a learning opportunity, we must teach them how to reflect on what can be learned through their experiences. For example, if your child fails a math test, don’t just scold them for making poor grades. Instead, review the test and help them articulate where and why they made particular mistakes. This reflection process teaches kids to self-monitor their learning and to develop strategies for intellectual growth.

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When kids have appropriate opportunities to fail and adults intentionally support them in navigating and learning from these experiences, they can develop valuable skills that will serve them throughout their lives.