Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Failure: The Opportunity to Learn

Failure is such a negative word for most of us, but maybe that's because we are looking at it all wrong. Failure and making mistakes is really an avenue for learning. We've all done it - we've all failed, and we've all learned. Think back to your childhood - there are mistakes and failures there that sparked learning and improvement.

Flashback: The school playground, first grade and you are making your debut in your first game of kickball. You envision yourself connecting with the ball perfectly sending it flying over the fence and scoring a home run. However, you barely make contact with the ball and you don't even make it to first base. You feel disappointed, frustrated and maybe embarrassed. Then you see your teammates, some do actually kick the ball and some miss it completely. Next time up you do better. Through failure you are learning a lot. 

Much of learning is trial and error. Just think about first steps, first words, first time at bat, first attempts to read or write or add numbers or pouring milk . . . we learn by doing, by trying, by failure. The process of learning is full of struggle. Children do much better with this than we think. Adults often want to come to the child's rescue, make it easier, eliminate or minimize the struggle. I believe we see a child's frustration and want to make them feel better but intervening can have the opposite results.

Children who are allowed to struggle, to make mistakes, to fail - are children who are actively learning. Feelings of frustration and irritation are normal. Being able to work through those feelings and allowed to try again (and again, and again) is vital to the learning process. Our role then is one of facilitator, counselor, cheerleader and supporter. Rushing in to makes things easier or "fix" something is not the answer to building a child with confidence, resilience and self-esteem. Being available to them to encourage and support is exactly where we want to be.

Real Example: A young grade school child that I'm caring for says he'd like some milk. I tell him that's great, go ahead and get some. He looks at me and says I don't know how. So verbally I go through the steps with him - getting his cup, getting the milk out, setting it up so that he can manage the pour on his own and then encouraging him as he does it. I'm not sure if he's never done this before or if his older siblings or parents have always jumped in to help him. Either way it's a success. Next time he tells me he is getting milk. I leave him to it but I'm there in case a little reminder is needed. He has a spill. No worries, I coach him through the clean up and we're good to go. As he's enjoying his milk we discuss how to prevent a spill in the future . . . and while we're at it we talk about the science behind pouring and why a paper towel absorbs. This summer while his grandmother was visiting I heard him tell her - "No, Grandma I can do it all myself now." He then proceeded to show her and she praised him for his success. He still sometimes spills but he now knows that he can handle that too.

I'll leave you with a couple of quotes to consider . . .

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.  Henry Ford

It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.  Bill Gates

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