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A resource produced for parents and educators by Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. 

  • Writer's pictureLourdes Hill College

How to teach kids not to quit, even when failure hurts

By Linda Stade

Hannah is 14-year-old, and one of my favourite young people. She has the rare ability to connect with anyone. She is athletic, intelligent, and popular. The high school trifecta!


I tutor Hannah once a week. You would think a child like this would have no problems at school and wouldn’t need a tutor, but she does. Hannah has a problematic fear of failure and it’s not just with schoolwork.


Over the last few years, Hannah has taken up and abandoned netball, piano, cello, contemporary dance, and swimming club. Each time she says, “I’m just not good at it.” Then she digs in her heels and won’t return.


Hannah hasn’t learnt that failure isn’t the opposite of success, it is part of success. And she is not alone. Many of our kids are setting themselves up for small lives because they fear being lousy at something new. They missed the memo that said, nobody ever starts out an expert.


Instead, these kids retreat into negative self-talk; missing out on new skills, social opportunities, and the chance to grow into their potential.


Why don’t we all learn from failure?


There are inspirational quotes about failure, EVERYWHERE...

  • "Failure is another stepping stone to greatness." ― Oprah Winfrey

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


These statements are true, but they ignore the simple fact, that failure feels terrible. It brings out our self-doubt and fear of not being worthy, and it can trigger a sense of shame.


To access the benefits of failure on our journey to success, first, we need to acknowledge the yucky feelings and normalise them. Most people feel bad when they fail, especially when others are watching and judging.


 In adolescence, those deeply uncomfortable feelings are compounded by a child’s growing need to fit in and their acute awareness that other people see and judge them. There’s no such thing as ‘dance like nobody is watching’ when you’re fourteen!

Failing forward


The difficulty of managing failure is acknowledged and addressed at Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. Principal Kay Gleeson understands this can be a particular problem with young women. Our culture teaches them to focus on how they look in the eyes of others and it stops them from taking necessary risks in learning and life.


Mrs Gleeson says, “Girls are particularly vulnerable to a fear of failure. If they fail an assessment or perhaps don’t get selected for a team they can fall into negative self-talk, become demotivated, and some develop a bit of anxiety. Our aim is to talk about that and reframe failure so they can see a way to move forward.”


Lourdes Hill focuses on failing forward. That means turning failures into stepping stones.


Mrs Gleeson says, failing forward looks like:

  • Being brave

  • Accepting that life isn’t perfect

  • Being active in the process of learning

  • Accessing help

  • Setting goals

  • Taking feedback on board

  • Doing what needs to be done.


Breaking the process down like this reveals the skills and strategies we expect of kids. Often, we assume they possess these skills when they don’t.


A powerful way of teaching kids about failing forward is to point out what failing backwards looks like. Failing backwards means:

  • Blaming others (teachers and coaches in particular)

  • Repeating the same mistakes

  • Taking failure personally, or

  • Quitting the pursuit altogether


Failure at school


A fear of failure at school may manifest as anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, and doubts about self-worth. It may also present as a refusal to take on challenges.


Mrs Gleeson says subjects like higher-order Mathematics, Literature, and  Physics are declining in the senior years of high school in Australia. Many quite able students are choosing easier subjects that will cause less stress. Otherwise, they are giving challenging subjects a go for a few weeks and then changing to easier options when they fail their first test.

We don’t want students to be completely out of their depths in learning. However, neither do we want students who should be challenging themselves choosing not to. When students avoid challenge, they lose the opportunity to develop higher order thinking skills and concepts. That impacts them in their future endeavours but also makes society a little poorer.


Failure and challenge build persistence, consistency, grace and a whole toolbox of skills and strategies for life. There is not much that doesn’t require those skills and strategies as kids become adults. Great relationships, rewarding careers, and great parenting are all born in the development of skills that failing forward can provide.


How can we encourage our kids to fail forward?

1. Respond to failure deliberately.

Think about the way you respond when your kids try and fail. Do you try to ignore it as though it is embarrassing? Do you make excuses for them, or lay blame elsewhere to make them feel better? How we respond matters. We can’t expect our kids to value failure as a stepping stone if we are sending the message that failure isn’t acceptable. Acknowledge failure and talk about it when the initial sting has passed.


2. Build tolerance for the feeling of failure.

Remind kids that failure itself is not a feeling. Help them identify what they are really feeling. Is it shame? Is it embarrassment? Is it frustration? Then remind them that all feelings pass, the comfortable ones and the uncomfortable ones. All feelings are part of being a human and they’re all okay.


3. Measure failure to make it less overwhelming.

Teach kids that failure varies in size and gravity. It also varies in its consequences. Being able to make these distinctions is a great way for kids to start learning about failure instead of just ‘feeling’ it.


4. Reframe negative self-talk.

Sometimes kids get caught in very rigid thinking. For example, a singing student who is struggling to hit the right note says, “I can’t do it.” Challenge that with, “You are doing it already, you’re just not quite there yet.”


If a child is catastrophising about their cross-country event. Ask them to describe the worst that could happen. How bad would that be?


5. Model your own failure.

How do you manage failure? Talk about that with your child. Real, relatable examples from trusted adults help normalise failure as a stepping stone. Also, share the failures of people they admire. Mrs Gleeson uses stories from Ed Sheeran and Michael Jordan.

Stories beat facts.



6. Set achievable goals.

Help kids set realistic, achievable, and measurable goals. Then break them into smaller incremental steps.


7. Give feedback of worth.

Give specific feedback after a failure. What can be learnt from the experience? What is useful information going forward? Explain that the journey to achieving success isn’t linear.

8. Make your home failure friendly.

Create a home environment that celebrates safe risk-taking. Encourage kids to be creative, give their opinion and justify it, and try new things – even if they feel they might look or feel silly the first time.


Final thought…


We want our children to fail while they are in the safety of home and school where there are adults they like and who care. Failure in the world beyond can be much more brutal with far greater consequences. So, let’s stop clearing a smooth path for our kids. Instead, be present to coach them as they learn to fall, let it hurt, and then get back up… with grit and grace.

1 comment

1 comentário

4 days ago

So very true - Resilience is key in life - take the knocks, get back up and keep trying. The Power of Yet...

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