Blog: Stop helping students, let them fail

For students to truly flourish, they must learn how to overcome hurdles put in their path.

(Source: Courtesy of BISB)

One of the most important documents we receive as parents are our children’s reports from school. They can be a cause for celebration or occasionally a cause for concern, but they always give us an opportunity to see how well our children are progressing against expected, normal parameters. All parents want to know how to help their child; however, understanding school reports can sometimes be hard since the lexicon of report writing can be difficult to decipher. Let me examine one of the most common phrases you might read in a school report and what it actually means when you are translating it from the page into your interactions with your child.

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A common phrase you might read or hear is, “needs to have more confidence in....’ As a teacher who has frequently written this statement, I realised that careful thought was needed when determining what that meant for a parent supporting their child. I thought back to a television series I watched around 20 years ago called “Faking It”. The premise of the show was that a person was trained by mentors in a completely different profession to their own. They had to convince a group of experts that they were genuine; for example, a ballet dancer became a wrestler, or a radiographer became a fashion photographer. The show was very powerful and moving because at the heart of it viewers saw the participants gain confidence and belief in themselves. Whilst embarking on learning a new profession the participant characteristically failed several times, but with the support of their mentors, they changed their behaviour, set new targets and continued striving towards their end goal.

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At the British International School Bratislava, that is what the teaching staff experience daily. We embrace the power of learning from our mistakes and guide our students in setting new goals and pathways to learning. In a recent M.I.T.-led STEAM project, our students were tasked with illustrating the water cycle in an engaging way. Of course, with a project such as this what happens is that groups find communication difficult, carefully constructed models fall apart and quiz questions are difficult to research because of confusing vocabulary. Through careful guidance from their teacher to change their strategies and set new goals, the students overcome problems and experience powerful lessons when presenting the finished project.

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Recently, the Danish psychologist Bent Hougaard coined the term "Curling Parents." This is a phrase that refers to parents who try to sweep away all obstacles in their children's path so that they can go through life without any setbacks. As a parent I can see why we want to do this; we work hard to provide the best opportunities for our children, but for them to truly flourish and become successful and independent adults, they must learn how to overcome hurdles put in their path.

So, what does this look like when we are supporting our child? How do we ‘increase confidence’? One of the best ways is to take a huge step back. Resist the urge to jump in to fix it or do it for them. If your child asks for your help, try to help with some questions...What is the problem? What have you already tried? What could you try next? We know as adults the most powerful solutions are those we come up with ourselves and the same is true of children. The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that your child has in achieving something they didn’t think they were capable of will be a lesson that stays with them long after the project is finished.

Ursula Jardine is a senior phase leader and class teacher at British International School Bratislava.

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