Think back to when your teen was a baby - maybe 9 or 10 months old - and they tried to stack blocks for the first time. It's highly likely they were not able to build the stack on their first try. At least not as high as they would have liked. For many parents (and some teachers!), the first instinct is to reach in and cheerfully "fix" the stack. The baby has a tower without the experience of trial and error in building it or in strategizing to overcome small failures along the way.
Fast forward 15 or 16 years to a junior or senior in high school. What do teens think is the source of any failure they experience as measured by their grades? Do they assume their efforts weren't good enough? That the system is stacked against them? Or that they only need to try again?
Failure is difficult for anyone. Babies, teens, and adults alike. So, it is easy to understand why we would want to eliminate failure and all the feelings that come with it for someone who we love. Without failure, however, we never think about ways to overcome it. If our failures are cushioned continuously or eliminated, there is no incentive to try to solve the problem on our own. Worse, if our parents or teachers fix our failures, we start to think we are not capable or that it is not our responsibility.
Benefits of Failure
It seems counterintuitive to believe that failing at something can teach us anything. Think about a math class. If you set out to solve a quadratic equation for the first time and failed at it, what would be the result if you were just given the answer and told to move on? You still wouldn't know how to solve a quadratic equation. You might even conclude that you are not good at math.
However, if you were told to try again and then again to figure out the solution, how would the result change? Well, you might actually figure out how to solve a quadratic equation. You might find some resources that you can use again in a math class. You might learn how your brain understands math. You might figure out that you are impatient, that you learn better with diagrams, that you like to work on math alone, or that you need extra help to learn a skill you missed in a previous math course. The failure gives you the opportunity to learn how to learn. It also helps to build other skills like grit, persistence, creativity, and collaboration.
How We Can Support Students
Failure can be an essential contributor to teen learning. One of the most significant ways to support teens in encouraging and developing opportunities for growth is to let them fail. This doesn't mean that you have to seek out opportunities for your child to fail, but rather that, when failure happens, you shouldn't be the first person offering a solution. Give your teen the responsibility of working through failures of all kinds - academic, social, athletic. Let them know that you trust them, and you are there to support them but that you do not need to control their response to failure. If asked, give them the tools to rebound.
Teachers and schools can also contribute to supporting students in failure. Just like parents, educators should give students the opportunity to fail. Students should confront experiments and investigations that are challenging and will need effort for successful completion. If possible, schools should move away from excessive testing and grading and allow students authentic, experiential learning. Learning that is project-based and collaborative gives students the opportunity to engage in their own learning processes and to rebound from failures. Fostering creativity provides students with a framework to work through problems and find alternate solutions.
Ultimately, there is ample room for failure in our teens' lives every day. Failure need not be damaging, and with proper support, it can be one of the most valuable learning experiences your teen has while still at home.