A pack of ninth graders rush into my classroom and insist that I come to the girls’ bathroom as quickly as possible. One of their friends is sobbing and refusing to come out. Apparently, she has earned an A- on a quiz, her lowest grade ever. This bright and capable student is paralyzed by the idea of perceived “failure.”
Resilience and grit have been buzz words in both educational postings and the popular media recently. Resilience is the ability to recover from a challenging situation or set-back rather than being crushed by it. Grit is defined as:
perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.
[Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6, 1087–1101]
Explicitly embedded in the definition of resilience and grit is failure. In fact, the only possible way to develop and then demonstrate these traits is through experiencing adversity. In elementary school, we do a better job of encouraging this process, whether it is the difficulty of swinging across the entire set of ‘monkey bars,’ processing a rejection from a friend, or mastering a list of new spelling words. While each event may seem small, the child learns something valuable about himself and about the world. Each of these “successful failures” is recalled as he approaches the next big challenge.
However, in middle and high school, several factors coincide to make academic failure particularly fraught. Uneven cognitive, emotional, and physical growth, a newly keen awareness of others’ perceptions, and seemingly higher stakes all combine in dramatic fashion. Failures seem more visible and more consequential. By keeping the long-term view firmly in mind, educators and parents can diffuse the trauma. Expectations ought to be explicit and multiple opportunities for revision and mastery should be standard. Growth and effort can be emphasized over a singular incident. Assessments should include process and an opportunity for self-reflection.
A poor grade on a history test may feel devastating in the moment. In all likelihood, your child will survive, learn something about how to better prepare for the next test, and practice moving on from disappointment. It is critical that our children practice these small, successful failures so they are better emotionally prepared for the more powerful experiences that lay ahead. When the student sobbing in the bathroom arrives at college, will she select classes based on ones she knows she can ace? Or will she challenge herself and then be devastated when she earns a C on an assignment? Will she be resilient enough to persist until she succeeds? Loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship, a family sickness – life is full of surprises and disappointments. A lifetime of “successful failures” allows us to develop grit.
Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.