The Fear of Failing

Teaching an Appreciation for Failure and Encouraging a Growth Mindset

Many factors contribute to a child’s inner voice and mindset. Educators, parents and guardians have the ability to shape and reverse how a child reacts, feels and approaches academic and personal challenges. A child’s fixed mindset and fear of failure can hinder his desire to fully immerse himself in learning experiences. When a child has a fixed mindset, he believes that his intelligence is limited; he does not respond well to failure—associating failure with being unintelligent and unsuccessful; and he will seek out activities that are not challenging to validate his intelligence rather than work through an activity that he struggles with because of his fear of failure. This fixed mindset will negatively impact this child throughout his entire life if it is not changed. So, how can we help change this mindset in children that have already acquired a fixed mindset? Furthermore, how can we help prevent this mindset from developing at all? The two following approaches will help to change and prevent a fixed mindset and instead promote a growth mindset.

Praise Effort, Not Intelligence: Research has demonstrated that praising intelligence (i.e. “I knew that you could do it because you’re so smart.”) places children at high risk for developing a fixed mindset. While the intentions of praising intelligence are to enhance confidence, motivation, and determination; children instead experience a short lived positive reaction to this praise followed by an immense fear of becoming or appearing unintelligent—thus causing them to avoid challenging tasks, resist learning, and respond negatively to failure. Children who are praised for their efforts (i.e. “You put so much effort into that task by trying new strategies and through trial and error you’ve succeeded!”), understand exactly what steps they took to succeed. They learn that through hard work and determination, they develop the skills and knowledge that allow them to succeed in a task that was once new, challenging and confusing. To achieve a growth mindset, children must understand that skills and knowledge are acquired through perseverance, resilience, and determination. Praising effort rather than intelligence encourages children to develop these qualities.

Teach An Appreciation for Struggling and Failure: Children with a fixed mindset and a growth mindset approach struggling and failure very differently. Research has shown that children with a fixed mindset experience poor self concept, negative thoughts, and helplessness in response to struggle, setbacks and failure. To prevent a fear of failure, it is important that children are encouraged to take risks when they are struggling through a new task. With emotional support, children will no longer associate struggling and failure with being unintelligent and recognize that working through their struggles is what helped them gain new knowledge and acquire new skills. Those who understand the importance of failure will become even more determined to problem solve to overcome a challenging task because they know that they will acquire new knowledge and skills; thus boosting long term confidence. Understanding the importance of struggling and failure is a characteristic of children with a growth mindset.

Praising effort and teaching the importance of failing helps children develop the qualities essential for achieving a growth mindset. Developing these qualities are crucial because a child with a fixed mindset will become an adult with a fixed mindset if it remains unaddressed. A fixed mindset can prevent people of all ages from reaching their full potential and achieving consistent happiness because of their strong fear of failure. Adapting a growth mindset equips people with the qualities that allow them to become resilient.

What You Could Do Immediately:

The next time an opportunity arises to encourage a child’s growth mindset, keep these questions in mind before providing a response:

  • Will my response praise effort, determination, perseverance, resilience, motivation and confidence?
  • Will my response encourage working through failure so that new knowledge and skills are gained?
  • Will my response support the importance of problem solving to overcome challenging tasks?

My Recommendation:

Achieving a growth mindset is an ongoing process that requires daily reflection. With daily reflection, one will be able to determine if one’s responses, qualities, and outlook are contingent with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Any caregiver is a child’s role model, so adapting a lifestyle that reflects a growth mindset will teach a child to adapt a growth mindset himself. Modeling the qualities of a growth mindset every day is the best way to teach and encourage it.

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