It’s 5 p.m. and I am really tired after a whole day at work. Yet I know that there is still one more family I need to see. I hear a knock on the office door and I see the mother and her eldest daughter. Then I spot five tiny little fingers wrapped around the hands of the mother, squashing them tightly. So I move forward to greet the little one and I see a sweet little girl with a big pair of glasses looking at me in fear. I ask her what her name is but she kept staring at me, unable to talk. We sat at my desk and the mother started talking about the child’s struggles. The little girl remained silent beside her, looking down, turning red at times and almost in tears…when…at one point she raised her head and said these exact words…”I really really try hard at school, I promise…I do my best but it is too hard. When the teacher asks me something, I try hard to think to get it right, but she thinks that I am not focused enough because I take long. I wish she knew I am thinking about the answer to get it right…” I felt my heart sink into my stomach. I can still hear the echo of these powerful words in my head on repeat.
How has this girl’s school experience been to make her feel so frustrated and hurt? Have our words made her lose her ability to dream and hope? Have we given her the message that she does not fit in our rigid educational system? Did our schools fail her already?
I had always thought of fear of failure as an adult preoccupation, but it seems that one of the effects of the climate of our time is the importation of adult fears to childish minds. Many facets distinguish the minds of children from those of adults, among them imaginative capacity, the repression of reason and the mysterious condition of innocence. But perhaps one of the most telling divisions is between the things adults fear and those that worry children. Children’s fears of failure are a litmus test of the society we live in and they are clearly changing – becoming more concrete – as society becomes more performance-driven, insecure and saturated with threatening, upsetting facts. The fear of ghosts is being replaced by the terror of under performance.
When a child experiences too many achievement failures, he may develop learned helplessness which is a tendency to give up on a task easily once he encounters difficulty. Continued failure leads to the expectancy that all tasks are too difficult and the child gives up on school and eventually on having a pleasurable life. Children with learned helplessness have cognitive, motivational, and emotional difficulties because they have experienced so much failure, or what they think to be failures, in their young lives that they don’t try. They have turned off because in their minds that is the safest way to avoid failing. Their explanation for failure is, “I’m stupid!” or “I can’t do anything right.” They feel that they have no control over the learning situation, so they either run away from learning or rebel against it.
Yet, it is worth noting that learning is an interactive process not a passive process that produces a product. It is a multi-dimensional discipline that involves a dynamic interaction between the students’ mind as they construct meaning out of prior knowledge and through the various elements of the situation. When children experience repeated failures in attempting to learn they stop trying for it hurts too much to try. Education should be a process of stimulating and awakening people at the core of their being, thereby enabling them to sense the reality of inter-connectedness, to appreciate the infinite potential in each person, in order to unlock and develop the power within to create happiness.
When we are young, our mistakes are applauded. Our falling-down attempts to walk for the first time are cheered by our parents, giving us the courage to get up and try again. When we accidentally put our shirt on backwards, people smile and praise our independence. At this age, the world teaches us that failure is merely part of the journey to success. But when we get to school, we quickly learn that mistakes are bad. Answers are right or wrong, true or false, bubbles to be filled in with a pencil. The risk-taking that used to be rewarded is now punished, and we either give up or learn to stick with safe answers. Unfortunately, this black-or-white thinking doesn’t encourage learning. Instead, it fosters a fear of failure and discourages ingenuity.
Allowing our children to make mistakes may possibly be the best way to combat this culture of perfectionism. We must remind them of what they knew as toddlers: mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process. Innovation and discovery can only be fostered if we give our children the freedom to fail. Schools can build resiliency by emphasizing exploration over correctness.
Everyday, in our classrooms, a lot of children are being singled out in a group, publicly labelled, they are the subject of derisive and degrading attention, isolated, even terrorized by the psychological horror. The social isolation and public shaming, would be felt at a deep level. We are social beings after all and as Robert Merton said, “we get our self-image in part by the way others see us”. And if we think others are seeing us as stupid, then that is how we are going to see ourselves…Teachers YOU ARE powerful. Your words are powerful. Kids look up to you, and you are one of their superheroes. So think over the wording in your classroom. Think about the assignments. And remember that the kids who struggle with reading or spelling may actually be very smart little boys and girls. When you struggle with something that is such a big part of every day, school can be a scary place. It takes an act of courage to even enter the door. So let’s build them up!
The first day of school represents something of a rebirth – an opportunity for new experiences, new relationships, new knowledge, and new skills for all of us who walk the halls of our schools. May this school year bring with it hope and another chance for children to improve their lives and rise above their labels. May education be there to uplift, sustain and give kids a reason to get up in the morning.
– Stephanie Bugeja is an educational psychologist. She offers educational assessments. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.