Teaching Failure

Michael Jordan. Most of us know him as a basketball legend. Many may not know that he didn’t make his varsity basketball team the first time he tried out. No doubt he was disappointed. But he and his mother did not complain to the school; they didn’t harass the coach or demand a meeting with the athletic director. Jordan didn’t transfer schools or give up and quit. Instead, his mom told him “to get in the gym and work harder” and he did just that. The result of his hard work: Michael Jordan is arguably the most influential basketball player to date. 

Failure, by definition, is the social concept of not meeting a desired or intended objective and is usually viewed as the opposite of success. In a time when perfectionism is deemed the standard, we’ve started to notice more anxiety surrounding the fear of failure.  

A question to ponder: In a time of fast information, new anxieties, and social pressures, how can we encourage our kids to try and fail?  Failures can teach us how to adapt, how to be flexible (another one of our 8 keys) and how to overcome obstacles.  As an adult, I’m sure you can recall an emotional response from a mistake you made once as a kid. This is called self reflection. From a growth mindset perspective, failure is not a bad thing, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. 

Middle school is a perfect time to try something new and learn to fail. In 6th grade, we focus on the 8 keys of excellence. Students may be reluctant to try different things because they’re afraid of failing. Fear of failure does nothing but keep us in our comfort zone where we stick with the familiar, the “safe” choices where we don’t “risk” another failure. When we step out of our comfort zone—when we’re willing to try something new—that is when we take a step toward success. The only real failure is not learning from our mistakes. The key to success is to look carefully at what went wrong, change what we did the first time, and try again by applying what we learned.

At the middle school level, we have highly qualified teachers who are there for each and every student when they veer off course. Our school day is set up to help students be successful with the addition of study halls, office hours, and teachers meeting weekly to discuss how to help individual students be successful.  

If a student has never met adversity, how will they have the skills to deal with challenges? A common example at the middle school level is when students decide not to use their study hall wisely. (Reminder: Students get 290 minutes of study hall each week!) This may result in a failed test, a bad letter grade, and a possible ineligibility that week in sports. Every action has consequences, either good or bad. Boundaries and repercussions, along with guidance, can help the students make better choices in the following weeks.  With this try-and-apply approach, students learn the skills along the way through both failure and success. 

7 Ways to Teach Kids Failure Is a Great Thing

  • Focus on a growth mindset (If you missed the Growth Mindset article, read it HERE)
  • Let failure happen
  • Embrace (and celebrate) failure.
  • Explain ‘The Learning Pit’
  • Explain the brain science
  • Emphasize “failing forward”
  • Teach the mindful approach

Instead of worrying about the outcome, worry about the effort. 

By Casey Baldwin
Middle School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director

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