FROM THE YELLIN CENTER NEWSLETTER - FALL 2015
Failure as a Path to Success in School
By Beth Guadagni, M.A.
It happens all to often. Young people who perform brilliantly in high school struggle academically at the colleges they worked so hard to get into. There are lots of reasons this may happen, but one of the most common is that they’re not used to taking nearly complete responsibility for their own learning. Parents and teachers have always coached them, and many young people have never gotten to practice managing their academics independently. Asking them to master a new skill set when it really matters, then, is a tall order.
The consequences, at that point, can be significant: Tuition is expensive, so having to repeat a course can cost a lot of money; a student may lose her scholarship if her GPA dips too low; and students who feel frustrated may drop out altogether. Even those who figure things out and go on to graduate may find that their early grades can impact graduate admissions or jobs.
We argue that it is better for young people to gain experience when the stakes are lower. After all, it is much easier to bounce back from a poor score on a weekly math quiz in seventh grade than a failing grade on one of the two tests given in a college-level calculus course. We advocate a model used by lots of teachers called “gradual release of responsibility.”
Photo: Enokson (CC)
The principle is simple: The adult starts out taking all of the responsibility for a task and gradually passes small parts of it to the child until, eventually, the child is managing independently. For example, imagine that a parent has been working with his fourth grader on checking her assignment calendar to ensure that she does all of her homework. Her parent talks through his thought processes for a week or two (“OK, you have three assignments. First, you should choose which one you want to start with. It might be a good idea to make a check mark next to it when you’re done so you’ll know at a glance what’s left.”), After that initial period, the parent then gives his daughter a chance to practice initiating some of those thoughts (“OK, here’s your calendar. How should you begin?”).
Once the child has mastered the procedure for using the calendar correctly, her parent should slowly turn over responsibility for getting it out in the first place. Gradually withdraw suggestions. But real life can be messy, and practice is usually murkier than principle. Things can get tricky when the parent sees his child making mistakes. This is where the parent must decide whether to step in or to bite his lip and allow things to unfold. If a child always waits until the last minute to start her math homework, for example, even though it always takes a long time to complete, her parent may need to stop cajoling her to start earlier. The consequence (staying up late to finish it or having to turn in an assignment that isn’t complete) will speak louder than any parent could.
At The Yellin Center, we sometimes ask students to bring in tests or assignments on which they performed poorly for what we jokingly call a post-mortem. Dr. Yellin can help students understand their own learning and performance by analyzing their errors to understand why certain material is difficult for them. Parents can conduct postmortems with their own kids, too. We encourage families to view “failures” as opportunities for learning and growth. Together, try to get to the heart of the difficulty and to identify some specific steps your child can take to help things go more smoothly. The child who always starts her math homework too late, as in the example above, may benefit from timing her work sessions for a week to determine how long it usually takes to finish the work. Then, she could be helped her to figure out what time she’d like to be done with her homework and what time she should start in order to accomplish her goal. She will need support as she begins working with her new system, but her parents should gradually withdraw the help as she learns so she can practice managing her time independently.
Not sure what your kid can handle? Start by remembering that many children are ready for these kinds of responsibilities earlier than their parents may suspect. A safe bet is to enlist the help of your child’s teacher. Explain which skill you’d like your child to master and how you plan to help her do it, and ask for feedback. Your third grader may have a few unpleasant experiences as she learns, but she’ll thank you when she’s in college.
One important caveat is that students with disabilities or certain types of dysfunction may need more support than many parents are equipped to provide at home before they’re ready to take over successfully. Kids with weak executive functioning skills, for example, may need to work with a professional before they get good at managing their own schedules and materials. If, after careful and patient instruction, your child is still struggling, it may be time to consult with her teacher or get the opinion of an expert about whether she might benefit from additional support.
Beth Guadagni, M.A. is a Learning Specialist at The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education. She earned her bachelor's degree at Vanderbilt University, double majoring in English and secondary education, and her master’s degree from Columbia University's Teachers College. Before coming to the Yellin Center, Beth taught English at both the high school and middle school levels.