Learning from failure

Are we failing children by not teaching them how to fail? 

For years ‘failure’ has had negative connotations­­. ‘To fail’ has frequently been seen as the worst-case scenario to be avoided at all costs, and one we should protect young people from. However, by shielding young people from failure and avoiding teaching them how to fail and have a positive relationship with failure, are we setting them up for problems later?

The impact of a fear of failure

The annual Good Childhood Report (1) from the Children’s Society found that children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe, with “a particularly British fear of failure” partly to blame. More than a third of UK 15-year-olds scored low on life satisfaction, with fear of failure alongside a rise in UK child poverty and school pressures cited as reasons why only 64% of UK children experienced high life satisfaction – the lowest among 24 countries surveyed by the OECD (2). The study also found that in almost every education system, including the UK, girls expressed greater fear of failure than boys, and this gender gap was considerably wider amongst top-performing students.

Research suggests that experiencing failure has marked emotional and psychological consequences. However, higher self-esteem, optimism and lower levels of perfectionism (the tendency to believe that others expect perfection from them) may provide resilience to emotional distress in response to failure (3). Should we therefore be reassuring children that it is OK to fail and encouraging an adventurous spirit, whilst also teaching skills to become resilient against failure?

Should schools be teaching children how to fail?

A handful of schools have run ‘failure weeks’ where pupils have been challenged to rethink how they perceive failure. This has been through activities which encourage failure, workshops on how to overcome failure, and presentations from teachers on how they overcame failure. Wimbledon High School’s ‘failure week’ was a top story on BBC News back in 2012. But the fact that these events do make headlines suggests that they are the exception rather than the norm.

Extra-curricular activities

Some research implies that involvement in extracurricular activities can help build mental resilience and self-confidence and perhaps reduce fear of failure as a result. A study from the University of British Columbia for instance, found that children who took part in extracurricular activities were more likely to have higher levels of optimism (which, as identified earlier, tends to reduce fear of failure) (4) . Benefits of extracurricular activities are also highlighted in research via the Social Mobility Commission (5). However, this study also found that opportunities to participate in activities were driven by household income, school attended, gender, ethnicity and geographic location. More research is needed to identify the possible potential of extra-curricular activities.

Growth mindset

Stanford University psychologist and Mindset author Carol Dweck suggests that individuals who believe their talents can be developed (e.g. through hard work, good strategies and input from others) have a growth mindset – and that they tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (who believe their talents are innate and don’t see the potential for development).

A study of participants in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (6) found that students who lacked a growth mindset reported higher fear of failure. Similarly, a pilot study (7) of nursing students found a correlation between a growth mindset perspective and a lower fear of failure. This study suggested that mindset training could increase student success and retention (in nursing). Another study that investigated the relationship between mindset and impostor phenomenon, via the role of fear of failure found that cultivating environments that promote a growth mindset, alongside the safety to fail, could lessen the negative effects of having a fixed mindset and reduce fear of failure. Similarly, research into how praise influences performance in students found that praising effort rather than achievement may motivate students with a high fear of a failure.

The impact of parent and teacher expectations

There are also clear links between high parental expectations and fear of failure. A 2020 study (8) of 1,792 undergraduate students found that when they reported experiencing more psychological control from their parents, they also reported more fear of failure. As children get older and move toward adulthood, parents and children therefore need to establish a new relationship dynamic that enables the emerging adults to feel independent but supported. In a separate study (9), a team specifically examined the relationship between teachers’ interpersonal styles and fear of failure in physical education students. Higher autonomy support was associated with lower student fear of failure. Conversely, a controlling teaching style was associated with student fear of failure.

Has the risk of failure been reduced?

Whilst fear of failure may be high, student pass rates are at their highest yet. For instance, A level pass rates rose consistently for many years, meaning fewer students are now ‘failing’. There has also been similar grade inflation at universities, with a significant increase in 1st class honours. This suggests an interesting situation. Fewer students appear to be failing, but perhaps as a consequence, fear of failure (as an increasingly rare experience) appears to be increasing.

What can schools and caregivers do to support young people?

  1. More initiatives to encourage and change the narrative around failure: Finland for instance, has a National Day of Failure where public figures speak about their own setbacks, residents are encouraged to try new things and people are encouraged to share their non-successes via social media. We should perhaps be changing the language and perceptions around failure, and providing psychologically safe environments which allow children to fail but to see this as a positive learning experience and to reward and encourage strategic risk taking.
  2. Encouraging a growth mindset: Research suggests that providing growth mindset training and encouraging a growth mindset environment can help reduce fear of failure.
  3. Bridging the gap between failure and resilience: Teaching children in schools how they can bounce back from adversity, is becoming more common, as part of the curriculum alongside wider mental health lessons. One consequence of resilience building in schools may be greater participation in extracurricular activities and more engagement in sports and physical activities – which may themselves help reduce fear of failure.
  4. Avoid overly controlling behaviour: As children get older and approach adulthood, parents and teachers need to increasingly provide support when children make their decisions, not make all the decisions for them.
  5. Parent and teacher expectations: Parents can help their children navigate societal pressures in a healthy way by teaching them that failure, or imperfection, is a normal part of life. As one researcher notes, “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop healthy self-esteem which doesn’t depend on others’ validation or external metrics”. If parents and teachers only praise children for their achievements (such as high grades), they may come to believe that they can only make others proud when they succeed. Instead, praise should be given for the hard work and effort put in, as this encourages a growth mindset and reduces fear of failure.

Lindsey Stack August 2022

5. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/818679/An_Unequal_Playing_Field_report.pdf