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The Fear of Failure and the Effect on Student Achievement

Ryan Piraneo

By: John Birch, CEO


“Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Instruct:

 It has been said that the most prevalent emotion for human beings is Fear. The sense of fear was important for early humans to make critical life or death decisions that helped our species prosper and survive. Even though today, most of us are not constantly facing “life or death”, “fight or flight” situations, fear continues to be our emotional element.

Much of my experience with young people is from leading after-school and weekend programs funded by the National Science Foundation, targeted towards inner city and underrepresented high school students. What our team has realized is that fear plays an even more significant role in the emotional makeup of these students, where fear consists of both “fear of failure” as well as “fear of success”. Early on, I believed that this was evident primarily in inner city schools. After working with clients and associates from rural Central Maine, we came to realizing that this phenomenon is largely a reflection of poverty and not location. We have seen this to some degree even in suburban high schools and with college students.

Fear results from many issues relating to poverty: Fear of not having a home to live in; fear of not having enough food in the house; fear of losing a job and not being able to find another; the fear of becoming ill; and for parents, fear of not being able to educate their children so that they can break the cycle of poverty. As we all know, beginning at an early age, children begin to internalize and adapt to the emotional well-being of those around them. We can see this phenomenon even with our pets. If you have seen a person that is suffering from extreme depression, their pet adapts and becomes more sedated, loving and affectionate. Imagine the impact of fear and other emotions on our children.

Some students from poor economic families see failure all around them on a daily basis. Thus, failure becomes a way of life. Relative to schoolwork, some of these students perceive that it is easier to prematurely accept failure by not even making an attempt at excelling academically. The fear of failure is so dominant that they would rather avoid the possibility of success than to make an attempt at all.

Other students may exhibit the fear of success. Human beings are social animals and have the basic need of being accepted amongst their peers. In some instances, students have a fear of trying and becoming successful because they fear being rejected socially by friends and family. They may also fear that their parents will think that they may be attempting to leave the family circle.

Influence:

What needs to be instilled by parents, mentors and teachers is that it is okay to fail. Without failure, there can never be success. Failure is a life lesson of learning; it is another way of understanding how something cannot be done. – Carl Messina

Step 1: Ask your children what are the three things in life that they fear the most. If you can remember, the teen and preteen years are extremely difficult emotionally and filled with fraught. You may find that the fear of failing and looking “stupid” falls within their top three fears as peer pressure significantly influences children at that age. Reinforce the knowledge that you will always love them and will always be there to support them.

Step 2: Teach your children that failure is nothing more than FALSE EVIDENCE APPEARING REAL. We can relate this to Thomas Edison. After the success of the light bulb, Edison was being interviewed. When Edison was asked by a reporter, “How does it feel to have failed 10,000 times?” Thomas Edison responded with a smile and said, “I have not failed 10,000 times, I have found 10,000 ways the incandescent light bulb will not work”.

Step 3: Do not over-protect your children from failure, as failure can be a strong character builder and can prepare them for the inevitable failures in life. Teach them that when they fail, a strong person knows how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. Even Donald Trump has had many failures, filing bankruptcy on many occasions and then persevering towards success.

Step 4: Let your children know that failure is part of the maturing process and can be a critical factor in brain development. Humans learn predominantly through failure and success.

Step 5: Change the behavior of how teachers grade papers. Most teachers will use a process of highlighting the number of incorrect answers at the top of the page. The message that is being sent to students is to focus on the negatives in life and not the positives. Suggest that teachers implement a process of putting the number of correct answers at the top of the page, thus focusing student’s attention towards the positive.  When children fail, we should focus on the lesson of life learned, that the wrong answers can be corrected with more focus on their studies and experiences.

Step 6: Share this process with your child. Take your child to a location where there is a corridor at least 20 feet long. Tell them that in front of them is their future and their dreams; behind them is their past and failures. First, have them walk away from their past while looking over their shoulder. Second, have them walk forward, only facing the future. Then ask which way was easiest to walk, note that it is much easier to see where you are going by looking forward, not back on the past.

Step 7: Tell your child that the word “Can’t” is unacceptable when used in referring to themself. “Can’t” can very well mean a lack of experience or education, both of which can be overcome with focus and effort.

Inspire:

Over the years, our team has realized that a student’s self-esteem and their focus towards achieving and maintaining high grades have a direct correlation. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one cannot reach Self-Actualization (being all you can be) unless the lower needs of Social Acceptance and Esteem have been met. Parents, teachers and mentors can play a significant role in the way a student thinks about themselves and the student’s desire to succeed. Remember, you as parents play the most significant role in your child’s sense of well-being. Parenting is the most important role that any of us can ever be in.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you fall. What really matters is how many times you get up and keep going.” – Rocky Balboa