Reframing Failure

In the September edition of the CCEI newsletter, we share numerous strategies and resources related to exploring engineering with children. Engineering activities are great opportunities for children to not only explore fundamental science concepts, but also build their creative, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.

One resource that engineers use to guide their work is called the engineering design process which requires engineers to ask questions, brainstorm solutions, build and test prototypes, and perfect the solutions they create. Within this process, there is lots of room for failure, but the failures don’t hinder the process. That is because engineers are trained to look at failure as a vital learning opportunity.

When they test a new product and it fails, they analyze the problem and head back to the drawing board to make adjustments.

Unfortunately, accepting failure, let alone enthusiastically welcoming it, is not really a common practice. Failure has gotten a bad rap. Generally speaking, we feel bad when we fail. Many of us shrink a little bit when we experience failure. Other people look at us differently when we fail (or so we think).

Early childhood is when many of us learned how to respond to failure, mainly by watching how people around us responded to failure, both ours and theirs. Watching someone crumble under the weight of failure sends a powerful message. Having our own failures met with harsh responses sends an even more powerful message.

So, how do we help children recognize the value that exists within failed attempts? You guessed it – we have to change how we view failure. This is hard work. However, when you look carefully you can see that there are two choices; to learn from the experience and move on or to succumb to fear and insecurity.

In an early learning environment, there are ways to demonstrate an acceptance of failure that are less risky or weighty. For example, you wouldn’t talk with children about a failed relationship but you could talk with them about how you got lost taking a detour to the grocery store. You could talk about how you failed to make it to the library yesterday, so today you don’t have the book that you had planned to read to them today.

In these conversations, you could share how you got into the situation, how you felt, and most importantly, what you learned and what you are going to do differently in the future.

This same approach should be used when children make failed attempts in the classroom.

  • Mistakes happen.
  • They can make us feel uncomfortable.
  • What can we learn from the experience?
  • What can we do differently next time?
  • How can we fix it?

So, go out there and make lots of mistakes; they really are a great way to learn.

Best of luck as you begin the new school year!