Over time there have been more than few vocal commentators who relish an opportunity to criticise the ways in which students are seemingly wrapped in cotton wool.

In some environments, children don’t learn about failing and every attempt to achieve is considered a success.

Such as headteachers instructing staff to use pink ink, rather than red (in a bid to be less aggressive), and winning being banned at more than half of all primary school sports days.

Sports day is always a contentious one… perhaps in our bid to protect and shield them from the disappointment of losing we have in fact removed the traditional competitive spirit of sports days? People take part in the Olympics and there are winners and there are losers, this is normal stuff and our children are strong enough to cope with that.

Yet amongst all the hyperbole and media bias, there’s an important question at the centre of it all – do they have a point? And more importantly, should we allow our children to try and fail?

The problem with the fear of failure

The fear of failure is tangible and shows itself in very real ways, such as stopping students from putting in their best performance in exams or assignments. Yet it is very often fear of fear itself that stands in the way of a student fulfilling their potential.

When students are supported in understanding their fear, they can move forward to finding ways to cope and overcome it – facing failure head on.

Teachers could and should take on a key role in helping them through this process, by:

  • Helping them understand that the unrelenting standards they apply aren’t healthy, and that an accepting attitude towards themselves is an essential starting point.
  • Exploring whether the student is worried about disappointing their parents, peers or teachers, and if so, helping them reflect on the underlying issues pertaining to that relationship.
  • Finding out whether it is their future career opportunities that they are concerned with. If so, then concrete answers should be sought in relation to recruitment criteria and advice on ways to impress potential employers outside of grades.

The matter of misconceptions

In his essay-adapted book ‘Children Who Fail at School Succeed at Life’, Mark Katz argues that central to any child’s success in older life is overcoming misconceptions around performance at school.

Most specifically, he writes about the need for students to understand that there’s no clear-cut case when it comes to a divide between ‘naturally’ smart children and their peers.

Katz outlines nine critical approaches to shape and prepare children for future life – with all of them linking back to opportunities for challenge in order to both succeed and fail:

1. Provide opportunities for kids to feel they belong and to contribute in meaningful ways.
2. Raise the bar and level the playing field.
3. Don’t expect a child to succeed in isolation.
4. Reward struggle as well as achievement.
5. Be a talent scout.
6. Consider a change of scenery or change the school social climate.
7. Encourage kids to speak out and get involved.
8. Never underestimate the positive impact you can have on a struggling child’s later life course.
9. Use caution when judging who is and who is not resilient.

Showing children that it’s not only OK to try and fail, but necessary in order to improve, learn and move forward, equips students with essential life skills that go far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

It’s no overstatement to say that when you help students to fully embrace failure, you directly impact their life chances for many years to come.