Failure may offer the best lesson kids can learn

As educators we aim to model the ability to embrace the unexpected and to manage failure constructively. This helps to build resilient students and provides them with the skills and assurance to bounce back from challenges and setbacks. In The Australian, Simone Boland, Dean of Teaching and Learning, discusses how failure is a fundamental part of the learning process. Read more below.

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Failure may offer the best lesson kids can learn; Simone Boland, Dean of Teaching and Learning Published Monday 31 October 2022 in The Australian. 

Being a person of grit, passion and perseverance grants you the tenacity to push forward when things are difficult and the determination to achieve success. But in a society that widely celebrates personal and professional success and achievement, it is possible to overlook this potential and instead be preoccupied with perfectionism – a trait that fears failure or misstep.

As parents and educators, we play a role in guiding children and teenagers through failure, teaching them how to dust themselves off when something feels harder than expected or has not gone as well as hoped. While we must encourage children to do their best, to be diligent in their efforts and to pursue excellence, we also must model the ability to embrace the unexpected and to manage failure constructively. We must do this to mitigate the risk of creating an unhappy perfectionist. This ability to model acceptance and resilience in the face of disappointment is particularly pertinent during any period of exams or testing – a time where self-judgment and fear of failure can be high.

Children and students with perfectionist tendencies can appear to be highly motivated hard workers who put in long hours in the pursuit of mastering a skill, often pushing themselves to their maximum potential. Yet perfection is an impossible goal and those who become preoccupied with it inevitably set themselves up for emotional and psychological turmoil when perfection is not achieved.

Across the long term, children who have been allowed to experience setbacks, mistakes and challenges without shame build the skills required to fail with the assurance they can, and will, bounce back. Allowing children to experiment with ideas and think creatively without fear helps remove the stigma of failure.

Perfectionists are also known to limit themselves by avoiding academic subjects, extracurricular activities or social situations in which they feel they may risk making a mistake or not coming out on top. As a result, these individuals often close themselves off from new opportunities where they otherwise might have grown, learnt or developed in new areas.

It is good for children to hold high expectations of themselves. But if they expect everything to be perfect, they will never be satisfied with their performance. We need to stop encouraging children to chase perfection and start encouraging them to pursue excellence, of which failure is a key component. In his best-selling book Failing Forward, John C. Maxwell examines failure, theorising that those who achieve find success because of their perception of and response to failure.

Creative school subjects such as art, music, drama, media and food technology naturally encourage children to take risks, explore new concepts, experiment with ideas and trial theories. In these subjects, the process is as important as the product when evaluating the result. Celebrating the success of the process – including the failures – is a lifelong skill children and students will benefit from learning.

We learn far more from our failures than we ever do from our achievements, and how we respond to failure determines our next direction.

For parents wanting to support a young perfectionist, especially those who are sitting exams and planning their futures, consider if the standards you set for your children and their academics or extracurriculars are impossibly high. Support your child in focusing on the process of working towards a goal and not on the outcome. Teach self-compassion as the antidote to self-criticism. And normalise failure, taking time to talk through what went wrong and what lesson is learned.

Not getting things “quite right” the first time and adapting to change is part of the learning process. All the while, developing the grit to build the resilience that is needed to achieve meaningful and relevant goals – not perfection.

Simone Boland, Dean of Teaching and Learning