Allowing Your Child to Fail: When Rescuing Impedes Learning


With a new school year beginning, it’s a perfect time to anticipate some bumps in the road and have a plan in place to navigate them with yourFailure_is_an_opportunity_to_learn.jpg child. If you’ve seen a pattern of needing to rescue your child from poor planning, the odds are that theme will creep up again this year. Before you rush to be a first responder to your child’s next Homework 911 call, consider what might be gained from allowing your child the opportunity to fail.

Now, we realize that failure doesn't usually seem like an opportunity, so let’s take a look at a typical scenario to see how it could be one. High school teachers across the country assign students “The BIG Research Project.” While the details vary from school to school, we expect some similarities from Boston to the Bay Area: This high-stakes project takes about a month; it involves researching; taking notes from several sources; drafting and writing; and a lot of independent work.

Students hate The BIG Research Project.

Last Minute Panic and an All-nighter

A friend of mine told me about a high school junior she knows - we’ll call him Cole - who had just such a project.  He put it off for weeks and then, when the due date approached, had a full-on meltdown. He had a few sources located, but hadn’t written a thing. Cole ultimately admitted to his mother, Laurie, that he hadn’t gotten anything done, and it was due the next day.  

Laurie and Cole worked together through to the early hours of the morning, taking a brief hiatus for sleep. The next day, sleepy-eyed Cole handed in his research project on-time.

Cole certainly isn’t the first student to wait until the 11th hour to start a major assignment, and Laurie certainly isn’t the last mother to help her son work his way out of a desperate situation. So what can we learn from this? Let’s explore this thorny (and common) case like an investigative reporter, getting access to multiple perspectives to see whether there may be some benefits to letting a student fall down once in awhile.

A Mom’s Perspective: Laurie’s View

"When Cole came to me with tears in his eyes and panic written all over his face, I knew something major was going on. Just as I feared, he had left everything for his big research paper to the last possible second - even though I had been hounding him about it for weeks. He's too immature to understand how a bad grade can impact his GPA and eventually his chances to get into a good college. So, I did what any good parent would do: I rolled up my sleeves, put on a pot of coffee, and got to work rescuing Cole from another near-disaster. What other options did I have?"

A Student’s Perspective: Cole’s View

“I really, really wanted to get his project done, but I knew how hard it was going to be since my friends were complaining about it constantly. I just couldn’t bring myself to face it. And my teacher has been really tough on grading pop-quizzes lately which made me not want to do anything extra for her class, including this stupid project. I think if the topic was more interesting to me I probably would have done it. Besides, my mom is really good at this kind of thing and I knew she could help me out.”

A Teacher’s Perspective: Ms. Switzer’s View

“I know this research project is a challenge for most students, so I do my best to support them through it. We spend 20 minutes of class time daily on this project. I give them checklists to keep them on track. This is a rigorous class and I expect my students to get the work done. I'm always available if they have questions."

Allowing Your Child to Fail: Why it Matters

I completely understand why Laurie stepped in: She’s a caring mom who has the skills to help her son get a project done (and salvage his transcripts for college). Cole’s performance makes sense too: The topic is uninteresting, the teacher is pretty tough, and his friends were stressing him out about just how hard the project is. And Ms. Switzer is trying her best to walk the fine line of giving the students support - with checklists and in-class time - and giving them room to work independently since she knows that’s an important skill for her students to hone.

As tempting as it is to step in and assist when someone is failing, sometimes what we perceive as being helpful is actually diminishing their opportunity to learn. Of course no one wanted Cole to fail, but experiencing failure - and learning from it - could put him on a solid path to avoiding failure the next time.  

A Coach's Advice: Plan and Reflect

If we could hit the rewind button on that sleepless night (and get an executive function coach on the scene), here are some alternate approaches that could have helped Cole learn a better way to take ownership of this project, and future projects as well.

Once Laurie recognized the nature of the emergency, I would advise her to help Cole develop a plan for how to get the work done that evening. Don’t fret over how late into the night his plan takes him, or remind him that he put himself in the situation. Simply identify the steps he needs to take, estimate how much time each step needs, and then let him work the plan. In the future, he can use the steps, time, mapping model on a larger scale across days (or weeks) rather than across the wee hours of the morning.

Invite Cole to reflect a day or two later about the process, once he’s had time to recover from that long, difficult night.

Ask about where he got stuck:

  • Was he unclear about what the project was asking of him?
  • Was he overwhelmed by how big the project was?
  • Was he unsure about how much time the project would take?
  • Was he too nervous about the grade to get started?
  • Did he start the project but then forget about it?
  • Did he start the project but feel unmotivated to finish it?
  • Did he think about the project, but choose tasks he preferred to do instead?
  • Ask him to evaluate his plan

Ask him to write a letter to his future self about how he felt during this experience, including suggestions for what he wants his future self to do next time.

Once he determines where he got stuck, how well his plan worked, and what he’d like to do next time, he’ll have a great archive of information to turn to when another project is assigned. So, although failure can feel terrible in the moment, it can often be the catalyst for tremendous learning and development, making failure in the future a less likely outcome.

Do you know a student like Cole who struggles to complete long term projects? Download our Project Planner Template to help manage the process and prevent last-minute project panic.

Download Project Planner Template

photo credit: Time to Crash via photopin (license)

About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

Previous Post

Reducing Academic Anxiety in Students with Perfectionism

Next Post

3 Tips for Parents Worried about Executive Function Challenges