Fear absorbs tremendous mental bandwidth. Fear squeezes out energy to think about anything else. When we are fearful, we are less likely to take risks, we are less able to make decisions, and we are less likely to learn.
Fear of failure in schools can be a driver of student anxiety, worry, and depression. For some students, fear of failure drives them to “play the game of school” that holds little meaning for and even less value to them. For others, fear of failure leads to the choice to focus elsewhere in life and discount the importance of learning in school and the significance of failure. Still others bounce between worrying about failure and lowering expectations relative to their chances for success.
Yet, we know that missteps, setbacks, and even failure are important to the learning process. Failure can carry valuable information and the opportunity to learn. Failure gives a reason to examine, reflect, and adjust. Our students cannot completely embrace success unless they conquer their fear of failure.
Fortunately, there is much we can do to help students meet the challenge of overcoming their fears about failure. Here are ten strategies we can tap; five are things we can do, and five are areas in which we can coach students to think and act.
What we can do:
- Focus on learning over grades. Learning invites and values mistakes and setbacks. Grades too often punish them.
- Model how to deal effectively with mistakes and errors. When we misstep or misspeak, we need to avoid minimizing, denying, and making excuses. When we do not know an answer, we can take time to reflect, understand, and learn.
- Create strong positive relationships with students. Relationships build influence. When we are confident in the potential of students, they become more confident. If we value academic tasks, students are more likely to value them, too.
- Nurture an environment of safety, respect, and reflection. Mistakes are less scary if blame, shame, and criticism are not present. Treating failure as an opportunity to discover and learn can be a powerful lesson.
- Focus feedback on effort and strategy over ability and performance. Our attention and words can help students to focus on effective processes. When something does not work on a first attempt, focus on the strategy and type of effort, not ability.
What we can coach students to do:
- Become aware of mounting fear and its symptoms. Coach students to use countering strategies such as breathing, stretching, and relaxation techniques.
- Accept and honor mistakes as a crucial part of academic learning. Remind students of other areas of life where mistakes are accepted as part of the learning and skill-building process.
- Plan and prepare. Fear usually dissipates with action. Practicing strategies and completing tasks can generate confidence and counter anxiety. They also reduce the likelihood of failure.
- Set and focus on a goal. Goals can squeeze out distractions and make mistakes less of a concern.
- Develop and take pride in resilience. What happens is less important than the choice in how to respond. There is always a choice.
Fear of failure may never completely disappear. In small amounts, it can even be a motivator. However, we need to do everything in our power not to have fear of failure become a barrier to learning and success. The learning environment we create and our coaching can make a crucial difference in the learning experience we offer to our students. The skills and strategies they develop will serve them well long after they leave us.