Children need to feel challenged in order to grow. In fact, researchers have found that when children don’t feel challenged in a certain activity, they’ll often change the activity to make it challenging.1 Young students have a natural desire to learn and to develop new skills; they want to engage in activities that allow them to improve and to excel. While it’s important to keep children safe as they experiment and try out new things, parents and teachers need to be careful not to interfere with important steps in a child’s learning process, even if those steps are difficult, frustrating, or even emotionally painful for the child.
In her blog, “Why It’s Important to Let Your Child Make Mistakes,” research psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler explains the difference between keeping a child safe and protecting her from necessary failures:
“…[O]ur responsibility is to keep kids unharmed. That doesn’t mean shielding them from all possibility of defeat. It means letting them fail safely.”
She gives a few tips to help parents to accomplish this fine balance (these same tips can also be applied to a classroom setting):
- “Aim to be reliable, but non-interfering.”
- “Involve [the child] in the decision making.”
- “Let [the child] solve her own problems.”
When given the freedom to choose their own paths and the risks they want to take, children will naturally take bold steps forward. It’s important for adults not to dampen that boldness, or else their children might not be fully prepared to be successful, autonomous adults when they’re older.
In a similar blog by Time writer Paul Tough, “Back to School: Why Grit Is More Important Than Good Grades,” Tough makes the argument that school is the perfect environment for learning because students can fail safely. Thinking about grades only, this might not be readily apparent, but there are other educational benefits to consider. Tough explains: “…[W]hat we don’t think about enough is how to help our children build their character — how to help them develop skills like perseverance, grit, optimism, conscientiousness, and self-control, which together arguably do more to determine success than S.A.T. scores or I.Q.”
This idea, that success is more firmly rooted in strength of character than academic achievement, is supported by research. Tough cites a recent study that “found that adults who had experienced little or no adversity growing up were actually less happy and confident than those who had experienced a few significant setbacks in childhood.” If parents (or teachers) try to minimize the amount of difficulty that kids experience in school, however, whether that’s by helping too much with homework or encouraging kids to focus only on subjects they’re good at, these same children will grow up more disadvantaged than if they had only had a mediocre SAT score.
As reported in the Edutopia blog “Experienced Teachers Reflect on Their First Year,” one teacher, when asked what she’d learned that was most important since her first year of teaching, explained her philosophy for challenging children: “Create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable, and they’ll take the risks of making mistakes.” Since kids will seek out challenges of their own accord, it’s important that teachers and parents create an environment, both in the classroom and at home, that will help kids feel comfortable enough to take risks and make mistakes without fear of shame or rejection. This environment needs to be both physically and emotionally safe, free of both safety hazards and put-downs. Once that’s accomplished, and the students feel secure enough to move around and explore, the possibilities are endless.
LifeBound is dedicated to helping students embrace the best that is within themselves through learning what they have to offer the world, to taking the risks to go after what they dream for, to following through with people and actions which can make those dreams a reality. Coaching is one of the tools that can help students learn to understand themselves, solve problems, evaluate options, and move through challenge and difficulty with grace and ease. We conduct coaching training for students and educators who work with students. To learn more, visit www.lifeboundcoaching.com.
1Mandigo, James L., and Nicholas L. Holt. “Elementary Students’ Accounts of Optimal Challenge in Physical Education.” Physical Educator 63.4 (Early Winter 2006): 170-183. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 June 2012.