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Helping kids learn to succeed

Responding to Peter DeWitt's "The Benefits of Failure." Today's guest blog is written by Debbie Silver (parent of 5 boys and teacher of 30 years)


The Japanese have a proverb that says, "Fall down 7 times, get up 8." I think that is a wonderful metaphor for what most of us want for our children. We would like to think that when our child does a face plant in the dirt, she will rise, dust herself off, lift her chin in the air and proclaim, "Well, I learned what not to do, so I'll try again." However, fostering that kind of self-efficacy does not come easily for those of us who grew up with some serious misconceptions about self-esteem.

The Myth of Self-Esteem
Mine was probably the first generation to be told by the overwhelming majority of pediatricians, learning theorists, and other people "in the know" that it was the adult's obligation to ensure that our children did not feel bad about themselves. We were told that praising them for anything and everything would build up their fragile little egos so that they would be willing to venture forward and embrace challenges. We were led to believe that failure was something to be avoided at all costs because of its potential to diminish one's self-value and extinguish enthusiasm for learning. In all good faith we did our best to make sure our kids felt like winners.

As parents and teachers we gave kids excessive assistance, rewarded everything we could think of, curved grades, and even reduced our expectations when necessary. Belatedly we found that our singular focus on teaching kids to be #1, the best, and immediately successful, sent very clear messages to them that failure, even transitory, was to be avoided at all costs. By teaching kids that failure is the opposite of winning we robbed them of the opportunity to embrace missteps as a chance to grow towards their goals.

When we praise children for doing what is easily mastered, aren't we essentially telling them we are more appreciative of appearances than of real achievement? Don't we really want learners who constantly push their boundaries and diligently strive to improve each time they try? If we constantly make things easy for kids and attempt to remove obstacles in their paths, aren't we robbing them of a chance to gain essential skills they will need in the future? If we praise them when they haven't earned it or commend them for being smart or talented (things over which they have no control), aren't we essentially devaluing their contribution to the achievement? Isn't it true that for most learners, things that are easily attained are cheaply held?

Motivation Theory
True self-worth is built by genuine achievement, usually after a considerable struggle. In order to build self-sufficient, resourceful learners we must provide them with experiences that constantly stretch them to new levels. And, of course, learning anything new usually begins with at least a few unsuccessful attempts. We have to teach kids that failure is part of growth and that most success comes from purposeful practice and effort rather than from inherent gifts or luck. Overcoming initial failure is a powerful incentive for further pursuits, particularly if a significant adult is around to witness the feat. Children don't need a star, a sticker, or overenthusiastic praise as much as they need a simple acknowledgement from an attentive adult.

It would be far more beneficial for kids if the adults in their lives helped them focus on their incremental gains and what they learned in the process. Students need to be aware that no one attains real success without overcoming barriers and pushing through adversity. Adults need to talk more about our setbacks and how we cope with our struggles. Dr. Carol Dweck (2008) suggests that parents and teachers help children enjoy the process of learning by expressing positive views on effort, challenges, and mistakes. We can embrace challenges with comments such as the following:

  • "Boy, this hard - this is fun."
  • "Oh, sorry, that was too easy - no fun! Let's do something more challenging that you can learn from."
  • "Let's talk about what we struggles with today and learned from. I'll go first."
  • "Mistakes are so interesting. Here's a wonderful mistake. Let's see what we can learn from it." (p.40)

We need to be supportive but honest with our charges; we should give them effective feedback that avoids labels (both positive and negative). We should judge less and guide more. We can encourage without disproportionate praise and constructively give feedback without disapproval. A conversation with a child might go something like this:

Charlotte- "I feel bad. I only made 68 on the test."
Adult-"On your last test you made 41. Look how much you increased your score."
Charlotte- "But I still failed."
Adult - "Yes, but you failed better."
Charlotte - "That's not funny."
Adult - "I'm not trying to be funny. You obviously learned from some of your mistakes last time and your score is 27 points higher than it was. You've got to be proud of how far you moved in the right direction. What we're going to do now is work on the problems you missed and see if we can identify any common errors. I'll help you figure out your mistakes, and you can practice the areas still giving you trouble. I'll be here to answer any questions you have. You have shown a lot of willpower in choosing to keep working on this. And you are definitely getting there. With your determination, I know you're going to master this."

We should guide children in setting reasonable goals for themselves and help them learn about deliberate practice. We can demonstrate how to work smarter so that their efforts help them reach beyond their current grasps. We have to show them every day that focused effort and appropriate choices are the things they can control, and in fact, are the keys to a successful life. We can inspire them to live a life where they learn to fall down 7 times, get up 8.


Dweck, C.S. (2007). The secret to raising smart kids. Scientific American: Mind. December/January, 36-43

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