Ben-Hem and Standardized Testing

If you are the parent of a third or fourth grade student you know that this week marks the beginning of PARCC testing. If your kiddos are a bit younger, you may be hearing a lot of talk about PARCC testing in the community and in the media. Whether you are new to the PARCC conversation or have been involved for a long time, it is important that you understand why we are working with the PARCC assessment and where we stand as a professionals with this new standardized test.

Background and Context


In 1993 the Massachusetts legislature enacted an aggressive educational reform agenda. One major outcome of this legislation was the implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). MCAS was intended to measure the overall efficacy of schools, districts, and the state in ensuring that all students had access to and were mastering the skills and concepts spelled out in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Just a few years after MCAS was implemented in Massachusetts, the federal government signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In 2001, this law brought with it a considerable focus on holding public schools accountable by measuring student learning using standardized testing results. The accountability movement achieved the desired outcome of focusing schools on student achievement and using data to make strategic decisions about how to best meet the needs of a diverse student population. Unfortunately, the accountability movement achieved a number of unintended outcomes.

The accountability systems outlined in NCLB detailed serious consequences should a school not achieve at the performance targets spelled out in the law. The penalties associated with “failure” pushed schools to focus narrowly on tested curriculum and caused a high degree of anxiety amongst professionals at all levels of the public education sector. Sadly, this focus on testing and the related anxiety spilled over to families, students, and communities.

As the accountability movement gained momentum in the years following the implementation of NCLB, the tumult and debate over test scores and the performance of public schools continued. In 2008 the federal government made its latest attempt to bring about sweeping educational reform. This time the reform did not come in the form of law but in a competitive grant program known as Race to the Top (RTTT).

RTTT provided states with an opportunity to apply for grants using twenty-eight criteria to judge applications. Grant winners would share in the $4.35 billion encapsulated in RTTT. Four of those criteria focused on standards and assessment. In order to score points states had to submit plans that committed to “developing and implementing high quality assessments.” These federal grant criteria are the fuel behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and PARCC.

One of the primary criticisms of MCAS has been and continues to be that it tests low level thinking and comprehension skills. In its current format, the MCAS assessments do not provide insight into the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are so critical to life in the twenty-first century. PARCC assessments were designed to enhance MCAS like assessments by creating testing scenarios that provided those insights into higher order thinking and problem solving skills while maintaining the standardize testing regiment necessary for school accountability purposes. Time and experience will allow professionals to judge whether the PARCC assessment meets that need and achieves its intended outcome.

What are the next steps for PARCC at Ben-Hem?


PARCC is a new standardized testing measure. As such, the test developer (Pearson) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) need to calibrate the tests to make sure that they assess the skills and concepts that they are intended to measure and that the skills and concepts are grade level appropriate. Because of the need to tune these assessments, the results, in essence, don’t count this year. You might hear educators say things like, “… we are being held-harmless this year.” When they say this they are referring to the fact that the testing results will not count for school accountability measures.

Beyond the fine tuning of the test, there are also a huge number of technical, staff training, and student preparation elements that we are working out. The PARCC tests will be taken on iPads using an application developed by Pearson called TestNav. Implementing computer based standardized testing on a broad scale presents a massive challenge that has taken many, many months to sort out and prepare for.

How is Ben-Hem managing PARCC testing with students?


The public discourse surrounding the CCSS and PARCC can best be described as heated and divisive. Regardless of the public debate, we are choosing to use PARCC as an opportunity to do something positive for our students and for our community.

Over the course of my career, I have heard many teachers talking about “getting kids ready for MCAS.” I have heard parents talking about the stress that their their children feel and I have seen kids get incredibly worked up about these assessments. None of these outcomes remotely resemble what we hope for our schools and our students. These are the outcomes we intend to change and I ask that parents and families join us in this worthwhile endeavor.

At school, we are taking a three pronged approach.

  1. We are focusing on the idea that the PARCC assessment is a test of the test. We are explaining to students that Massachusetts still isn’t sure how good the test is and that giving it to kids will let them know just how good (or bad) the test is.
  2. We are reinforcing the message that these tests aren’t a measure of a person’s intelligence or capacity to learn and perform. Standardized tests, no matter how good, are not exact measures of students knowledge and understanding. If a student took a standardized test on fifteen different occasions, we would expect to get fifteen different scores that fall within a range of scores that third graders normally fall into. Understanding this variability helps kids to understand that the test is not a certain measure of what they know and are able to do.
  3. We are moving away from “MCAS preparation.” This is the practice of dedicating teaching and learning time to taking mock tests and focusing on how to take test questions apart to get the right answers. There is no question that we have an ethical obligation to our students to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to participate effectively in PARCC examinations. To do so we provide orientation to the online testing environment and the overall layout and format of the test. Beyond this orientation to the test and testing environment we will entrust success on any standardized test to the amazing learning opportunities that this community provides for its students and children.

Here is how you can help.

  1. Reiterate the messages we are sharing with kids. Kids feel more comfortable when they know that the adults in their lives are on the same page.
  2. If your kids mention PARCC, give your children information not opinions about the test. Help them by giving facts. There are many great resources that describe the tests and their content.
  3. Reinforce the idea that they should do their best work just like they do on any other school day. The only difference is that on PARCC testing days they will do their best work on an iPad.
  4. Relax. PARCC scores will in no way limit your child’s admission to honors courses or any other opportunities later in life. These tests are designed to give a general sense of how children are performing and what they may need in terms of instructional focus in future months and years.

There is a lot here and I understand that this is a lot of information to take in. If there are questions you have that are not answered here, please feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at ikelly@natickps.org

 

 

Talking about Writing

writing-kidsSupporting young people in their growth as young writers is one of the most important and complicated tasks that educators and parents manage in the early years of life. It is important for many reasons but the one that most often comes to mind is that is is essential to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively. I think that this is the reason that most often pops into people’s heads when they consider why writing is important.

There is another reason of equal importance and is often overlooked. Writing is important not only as a skill to be learned but as a tool that enhances learning and facilitates deep understanding. Think about how writing works for a minute. When you sit down to write, the words don’t just spill out through the pen, pencil, or keyboard. When you sit down to write an amazing cognitive task is initiated. You consider:

  • who am I writing to/for?
  • why am I writing this?
  • what do I hope to achieve?
  • what am I writing about?
  • what words will I use to articulate this message?
  • in what order will these words make the most sense?
  • in what order will these ideas make the most sense?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Writing is incredibly complicated but it is also an essential mechanism that we use to reflect on our ideas, to refine those ideas, and in our attempt to communicate those ideas to others so that they will understand.

The review and rehearsal of information is a critical step in the process young people use to attach new information to existing information and, therefore, make sure that it “sticks” in the long term storage of the mind. By engaging young people in writing as much as possible, we actually engage them in thinking as much as possible.

The lesson is this; encourage and support young people to write as much as is possible throughout the day. More writing, more thinking. More thinking, more review and rehearsal. More review and rehearsal, more learning. Learning and learning how to learn is what we all want that for the young people in this community.

So, think about all of the ways that you can engage your young writer in the process of thinking and processing ideas and information.

  • If they have a special meal that they would like, ask them to write it down so that you remember. If they are a little older ask them to write down as many of the ingredients as they can remember.
  • If they would like a playdate with a friend, ask them to make a note of it so that you don’t forget. Ask them to jot down a few things they would like to do during that playdate.
  • Engage them in writing about their interests. If they like to build things, engage them in writing about the buildings and the designs of those structures. They might like drawing or painting, ask them to describe the painting or drawing.

There are a million ways to go about it but the bottom line remains the same. Every time they put pen to paper it’s contributing to their growth as a writer AND a learner.

The First Weeks of School


classroom_communitySchool is back in session and all of our students are here and having a great time with their teachers and all of our support staff. Classrooms are getting up and running and this is a subject that parents often ask a lot of questions about. What happens during the first few weeks of school? It would be easy to just say “Magic!” But that is surely an oversimplification of what is an incredibly complex process.

Community Building


 Community building is arguably one of the most critical tasks that teachers undertake during the first six weeks of school. The extent to which students engage in teaching and learning is a function of the healthy learning environment that teachers and students create together in the first few days and weeks of the school year.

Effective learning communities are founded on a few basic principles. These include:

  1. Shared Vision: A common and shared vision of why we are here, what we are here to do and how the classroom will operate in order to achieve those ends.

  2. Rules and Routines: A common and shared understanding of the rules and routines that will govern classroom operation. These rules and routines are developed collaboratively. Teachers lead the process and students participate in their development.

  3. Strong Relationships: Teachers and students develop strong individual relationships founded on mutual understanding and respect.

  4. Ownership: In coming to respect the classroom environment and understand the people they share the classroom with, children develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the learning environment.

 It is important for parents and families to understand that this is an incredibly important time of year and the focus is on building a classroom climate that is highly conducive to learning and growth. To do so teachers focus the majority of their time during the first few weeks on community building, routine setting, and expectations. Over time this creates a situation in which teachers spend less and less time on management of the classroom and more and more time on teaching and learning.

 Expectations


Expectations and routines are the tools that teachers use to operationalize the community described above.Behavioral expectations are what we think of as rules. These positive statements govern how we interact with the other members of our classroom and school community.

Behavioral expectations in classrooms are meant to provide students with general operating procedures that give guidance in the many settings and interactions students encounter throughout the day. This is why many classroom behavioral expectations include some formulation of the golden rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” These types of open ended behavioral expectations are most beneficial to children because they require consideration, choice, and reflection on the part of the child.

Consideration, choice, and reflection operate in the cycle of developing and refining human behavior. The open ended behavioral expectations that we described above provide the opportunities that children need to continue the process of internalizing this orientation to their behavior.

 When making choices, the child must consider how they would want to be treated before acting (most of our youngsters are just in the beginning stages of developing this skill). The consideration of self in thinking about others is key to developing empathy and a sense of responsibility. As we have all seen with young children, the ability to control impulses is a skill that takes thousands of hours of practice (and an ocean of parent’s patience) to develop. Consideration is one of the underlying skills that supports the child’s ability to inhibit their impulses and make positive choices.

The notion of choice is key. Children (and adults) make thousands of choices every day and they are responsible for those choices. The concept of choice is often a difficult one for children to begin to grasp early on in their lives. You will often hear pre-school and primary age students say things like, “She made me do it.” Obviously this is not the case and supporting children in developing internal responsibility for the choices they make is an exercise that takes many years. Broad, open ended behavioral expectations provide opportunities for practice and learning.

Reflection is an integral element of the behavioral development and learning process. Helping children to reflect upon and consider the impact rather than the behavior is where the real learning lives. Asking a child to reflect on a poor choice is so important. Instead of demanding that a child share a toy, ask them “How would you feel if ______ chose not to share with you? How do you think you are making ______ feel when you choose not to share with them?”  Few children will intentionally choose to continue a behavior that is hurting another person. Having these discussions on the good side of the behavioral continuum is equally important as this builds confidence and engenders future success. “You chose to share your toy today! How does that make you feel? How do you think ________ feels because you shared?”

 Routines


Establishing routines takes time, practice, and skill. For children to feel safe and secure, it is important that they experience a certain level of “order” and structure in their routine. It is equally important that these routines are consistent so that children know what to expect.  Many of our children already have some routines established at home; from brushing their teeth before bed or going to sleep at a set time, routines help our children develop important executive functioning skills that foster independence.

Developing independence builds confidence in children, and when children are confident in themselves, they are highly motivated to learn.  Teachers often involve children in the development of these routines and spend a significant portion of the early school days, helping children learn the routines for these reasons.

From learning how to enter school, going from their classroom to Specials, entering the cafeteria, exiting the cafeteria, going out to recess, discovering how to ask for the nurse or the bathroom, to learning silent signals and how to participate in class, or how to exit the building, children have so many routines to learn during the first few weeks of school!  Just think of how difficult it was to adjust to the new morning routine, to waking up early, getting ready and having breakfast.  Now they have more adjustments and more routines to learn!

During these first few weeks of school, these adjustments can be tiring for children.  The good news, however, is that when practiced over time, they benefit our children immensely.

Just how complicated is it for kids to follow directions?

thefeedingdoctor.com

thefeedingdoctor.com

In our last post we talked at length about reading and interpreting the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In this week’s post we turn our attention to look at tools and strategies that families can use to develop strong work habits in their children. Our goal is to support families in their efforts to teach and support these skills proactively throughout their child’s life.

The ROSP relies on an observation based rating scale when it comes to rating a child’s development of articulated work habits. The rating system focuses on the frequency with which the teacher observes a given behavior. These observations are captured in  the ratings: Rarely (R), Sometimes (S), and Usually (U). No matter the rating, it is critical that parents reach out to teachers and educational professionals if they have concerns about the development of these skills.

One of the  complexities in supporting and learning effective work habits is that they each represent a series of embedded and related skills. Because of this, it can be hard to know how best to support children in practicing and developing those skills. To support families in this endeavor we are going to take the next few posts and explore the prerequisite skills  for each work habit and easy to use strategies that families can employ to support them. This week we are going to focus on following written and oral directions.


Follows directions accurately (written and oral)

Embedded Skills

  1. Focused, sustained attention: Child attends to the source of directions until directions have been communicated.
  2. Language: Child is able to read and/or hear the directions.
  3. Comprehension: Child fully understands the given directions.
  4. Self-Monitoring: Child monitors comprehension for understanding.
  5. Self-advocacy: Child has strategies to ensure that they understand the given direction.  This includes, but is not limited to, asking for help when needed.

Strategies

  1. Focused, sustained attention: Always be sure that you have your child’s attention before giving directions. Their bodies should be facing you and you should require eye contact before giving directions. If the child breaks eye contact or turns away while the direction is being given, discontinue the direction until they provide you with full attention.
  2. Language/Comprehension: Have the child restate the direction in their own words. Family members can simply ask, “What did I just ask you to do?” or “What is the homework assignment asking you to do?” Asking this simple question is a sure fire way to tell if the child understands the given directive.
  3. Self-Monitoring: Presuming that the child misunderstood your direction or the homework assignment, it is most important not to do the clarifying for them. Instead, ask guiding questions. “That’s not what I asked you to do. Think about it for a minute and see if you can remember.” or “When you don’t remember a direction, what could you to make sure you know what to do?” Doing so puts the child in the position of having to do the “heavy lifting” and develop the self-monitoring and self-help skills that they truly need.
  4. Self-Advocacy: In the off chance that you give a direction and the child does not follow through in the way that you intended (sarcasm), use this as an opportunity for learning and growth. “Hmmm. I see that you put your plate on the counter which is really helpful. What I asked you to do was place it in the dishwasher. It seems like you may not have understood my directions, what could you do in the future to make sure you understand me?” If the child truly can’t come up with an idea you might suggest that they ask what they were supposed to do again or think about what the situation and what action is appropriate to that situation.

by Ian Kelly, Principal Ben-Hem and Heather Smith, Principal Lilja

Making Sense of the ROSP

One of the advantages of having a standards-based report of student progress is that it takes some of the ambiguity out of understanding your child’s progress.  The ROSP is structured to provide families with a snapshot of the whole child. The report goes goes beyond academic standards and provides information on work habits, study skills, and social skills.

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

It is no secret that every parent wants their child to excel. It is this natural desire and drive that can muddy the waters when reading and interpreting a report like the ROSP. Our natural inclination is to look for ratings of 4 (exceeding grade level standards) throughout the report. The challenge in this mindset is that it does not account for the intended purpose of the ROSP and the natural developmental patterns of children. When reading the ROSP, it is important to remember that all of the standards on the report are end of year standards (things we would expect kids to know and be able to do by June). As such, a rating of 2 (progressing towards grade level standard) is perfectly normal at the January reporting period and a rating of 3 (meeting grade level standards) is perfectly normal by the June reporting period.

So how do we define performance levels?  The ROSP contains a range of proficiency levels:

          1 – Not progressing towards grade level standard

Students who receive a proficiency rating of 1 in an area are struggling to meet the standard and there may be a range of reasons why the child is not demonstrating progress in such an area.  Teachers in the NPS are committed to the academic progress of every child and there are a number of supports available to help children work towards proficiency.  If your child is not progressing towards the grade level standards in multiple areas, is not receiving support, or you do not understand why your child is not making progress towards the grade level standards, reach out to your child’s teacher and open a dialogue.

2 – Progressing towards grade level standard

Students who demonstrate a rating of 2 are progressing towards the grade level standard which means that they are making progress but have not yet met the standard. As students work towards achieving proficiency, teachers are there to provide support as a guide on the side helping children set, monitor and work towards achieving their goals.  When a child achieves a rating of a 2, It’s important to acknowledge that this is an area of growth not necessarily a deficiency.

3 – Meets grade level standard

Students meeting grade level standards demonstrated a proficient level of understanding of the standard.

4 – Exceeds grade level standard

Students who earn a rating of a 4 have exceeded the grade level standard consistently over time.

It is also important to note that not all of the standards will be assessed on the mid-year report. This reflects the pacing of curriculum in the Natick Public Schools. While there is a high degree of continuity across our classrooms, we expect our teachers to differentiate content to meet learners at their individual levels. As a result of this expectation, it is not uncommon for classrooms to reach different points in the curriculum by the January reporting period and for the standards reported to vary slightly (i.e. one second grade classroom has covered 2D geometry and another second grade class has not yet reached that point).

While you may be tempted to look primarily at your child’s ratings in academic areas such as English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science, careful consideration of a child’s habits of mind are critical to understanding a child’s growth as ratings in these areas can provide families with insights into how and why a child may/may not be demonstrating proficiency in an academic area. These skill sets are the foundations of learning and weaknesses in these areas often translate to academic challenges.  For example, a child who “rarely” takes academic risks and rarely displays a positive attitude towards school and learning may be struggling to achieve proficiency in specific areas of his or her academic skills. In these cases, it is important to talk with your child’s teacher and the child to come to an understanding of what can be done to turn things around.
In our next few posts we will discuss specific ideas to support families in establishing and developing solid work habits and study skills in their children.

by Ian Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather Smith, M.Ed.

Executive Function and Socialization

by Ian Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather Smith, M.Ed.

In our last post we gave a basic description of executive function and the ways in which families can generally support its development at home and in life. Children who experience challenges with executive functioning skills often have difficulties that cross all parts of their lives. In this post we will dive into the social/interpersonal implications of executive function deficits and discuss how families can support their children in these specific situations.

Making_friends

www.wikimedia.org

There are two primary areas of executive function that impact socialization and interpersonal skills, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotion, behavior, and desire in an effort to achieve a goal. Cognitive flexibility supports people in thinking about two or more concepts or tasks simultaneously as well as a person’s ability to go back and forth between tasks easily. In the realm of social interactions and relationships there are many goals that rely on these skills. Self-regulation and cognitive flexibility both take time and energy to develop. Making friends, participating as a member of a team, playing games, solving problems, compromising, etc. These are all great examples of learned skill sets that have a lasting impact on successful socialization. The trick is understanding that the ability to make friends actually relies on a broad range of skills that are all governed by executive function.

Let’s take a quick look at the basic (not exhaustive) set of skills that one needs to make friends and how self-regulation and cognitive flexibility can impact them.

Skill

Impact of Self-Regulation and Cognitive Flexibility

Engage in conversation

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Sounds, objects, and other environmental stimuli grab my attention and I can’t focus on and sustain conversations effectively.

Remember important details about people

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Moving too quickly and missing details means that I don’t remember things about people.

Reading and interpreting non-verbal cues

Distractability (Self-Regulation): I miss important clues about how people are feeling (facial expressions, body language) because I often get distracted by noises or other things around me.

Compromise

Finding a Middle Ground (Cognitive Flexibility): Finding a middle ground with a friend can be hard because I have a hard time letting go of my expectations.

Problem Solving

Empathy (Cognitive Flexibility): Understanding the perspective of others can be challenging because it is hard to go back and forth between my perspective and their perspective.

Perseverance

Sticking with it (Self-Regulation): When I encounter a problem with a friend, I have a hard time working it out because I want to move on to the next thing.

This table represents just a few of the many skills that go into establishing and maintaining peer relationships. The development of effective executive functioning skills is critical in ensuring the long term social well being of children. The question that we hear from many families is, “What can we do to support our kids in developing these skills?” The simple answer is, “Lots.”

The most effective strategies that we recommend are well articulated by Bonnie Goldsmith who wrote a piece for The National Center for Learning Disabilities titled Social Skills Tips: Help with Executive Dysfunction. In this piece Goldsmith lays out a simple problem solving process to support children in developing the executive skills they will need to be successful.

  1. Get to the root of the problem.

    • Watch the child carefully in many different social situations. This will help you to get a sense of what kinds of struggles exist, in what situations they exist, and how complicated they are.
  2. Develop a good sense of strengths and struggles.

    • When observing, note both. Where are the child’s strengths and where are their struggles. It is important that caregivers be able to refer to and leverage each child’s strengths as they work to improve areas that are challenging.
  3. Engage the child in a conversation.

    • Don’t do the heavy lifting for them. Engage them in a conversation about the problematic behaviors. Ask questions that will guide them in developing strategies and possible solutions.
  4. Partner with the child to develop alternatives.

    • Work together to develop alternative strategies and plans for using those strategies in real social situations.
  5. Practice alternative behaviors with the child.

    • Take time to provide safe, structured opportunities to practice the alternative skills or strategies. Set up role plays and scenarios to work through before expecting the child to apply the skill independently.
  6. Follow up with the child.

    • After the child has an opportunity to practice the alternative skill or strategy on their own, debrief with them. Ask them how it went? What worked? What didn’t work? How can we adjust for next time? How can you support them?

Beyond problem solving, Goldsmith emphasizes the importance of refraining from judgement and being there for your child. Kids look to their caretakers for guidance and support. Judgement can be detrimental especially when a child is struggling with a specific skill or set of skills. Doing our best to refrain from the inclination to value or evaluate a child’s behavior is challenging. We have been taught to say things like, “Good job”, “Way to go”, or “That was not right.” The problem with these statements is that they are value judgements that are vague and often leave the child wondering what they could have done differently and that perhaps there is something wrong with them. Engaging them in a positive, problem solving conversation will help them develop important social skills while fostering a caring and supportive relationship with parents and caregivers.

In our next post we will focus on the topic of feedback before returning to executive function and their place in academic skill development and performance.

Failure: An Old Adage for Success

Post by Ian Kelly & Heather L. Brennan Smith (Principal at Lilja School)

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” – J. K. Rowling

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill

Chances are that when you grew up, someone in your life encouraged you to find your own success.  It is also very likely that someone encouraged you to persist.  Think back to your childhood and ponder for a moment the very first time when someone told you, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  Yet, somewhere along the way, we form our own beliefs about success and failure.  In theory, many of us believe that failure is a fundamental driver in the process of learning and growth so why is it so hard to accept, especially when it comes to our children?

Our well-intentioned friends and family give us mixed messages when it comes to failure.  Avoid failure. Focus on success.  We avoid it at all costs.

Even more unfortunate than our personal associations with failure are those we draw for our children. Beyond teaching them that failure is to be avoided, we do all that we can to protect them from it. These tendencies are perfectly natural and they go far beyond the realm of parenting. In Seth Godin’s (2010) piece Redefining Failure he captures our current concept of and stance towards failure, “We think that failure is the opposite of success, and we optimize our organizations to avoid it. We install layers and layers of management to eliminate risk and prevent catastrophes.”

failure_success

Photo courtesy of www.agencypost.com

 In spite of our altruistic tendencies to protect our children from failure, we deprive them of critical “learning” experiences when we don’t accept the missteps that children take along the way.  Children need opportunities to fail. Their growth and development rely on these rich contexts for learning. Our job, as parents and as educators, is to provide structured, developmentally appropriate opportunities to fail or, in other words, to learn. When we consider this notion, there are two important questions: what do children learn when we allow them to fail and how do we structure opportunities that are appropriate and productive?

Before we consider these questions though, let’s re-imagine our own paradigms for failure. This is a critical first step because consciously and unconsciously we communicate important and influential messages to children that form their perceptions of failure.

First, consider failure first as a positive thing. Failure is great! Without it we would be perfect and there would be nothing to learn. Secondarily, think of  failure not as a shortcoming but as an opportunity, a guidepost on the path towards learning. Failure bothe presents us with and leads is toward opportunities for  for success. If we are patient and learn to embrace failure as a positive and integral part of the learning process, then we are well on our way to supporting our children.

 What do children learn from failure?


Angela Lee Duckworth calls it “grit.” Grit is what children learn from failure. They learn to persevere and persist in the face of challenge and novel tasks that force them to apply known information to solve new problems. Children come to understand the limits of their current knowledge and ability and how to grow and stretch to tackle the next challenge they face. They learn to identify their strengths and their weaknesses. Students come to understand how to leverage strengths and improve weaknesses. Most importantly, they learn that challenge is to be expected in life and that it is their effort and their hard work that determine the outcome of that challenge. Carol Dweck at Stanford University calls this mentality the “growth mindset.”

How do we structure appropriate and productive opportunities for failure?


Providing children with opportunities to fail, struggle, and learn cannot happen in a vacuum. We can’t just toss them to the wolves and expect them to figure things out. We must remember that children develop perseverance and persistence over time. If we put them into situations in which they are unable to find success we hinder their development. So, what is the context in which kids can really benefit from failure? When do we let them struggle? When do we intervene? These questions rely heavily upon a social context for learning, an understanding of our children and an evolving understanding of ourselves.

A child’s social context for learning, or failure, is critical.  Young children are keen observers, especially of adults.  They watch and listen, taking cues from us as they attempt to make sense of their world.  If a child is supported in an environment where adults behave and speak in way that communicates positive messages about failure and embrace it as a learning opportunity then we are well on our way to creating a context that is ripe for learning.

The second part of this  context is our ability as parents and educators to take a step back from the situation and make  rational, balanced decisions about when to intervene and when to let them figure it out. This can be challenging because it is in our nature to protect and support.

 A few years back Mr. Kelly was spending time with a good friend and they were playing with their young children. As always they liked (and continue to like) to do, they were analyzing the play of their children and the situations that arose as they interacted.  Sawyer (Mr. Kelly’s son) was about two years old at the time and was moving backwards without looking where he was going. There was a block on the carpet that he would obviously trip on and fall. As is usually the case, there were a few seconds available to consider options and make a decision about how to manage the situation.

The first analysis was safety. Is he going to really hurt himself if he is allowed to fall. At the time, he was on the carpet so he had a soft spot to land and there were no other objects  around that he would hit on the way down and hurt himself. Safety, wasn’t an issue. The second analysis was the potential for learning and the importance of the lesson. In that split second Ian decided that this was an important lesson. Walking backward without checking your surrounding is inherently dangerous. This is a concept that a two year old could begin to grasp. So as it turns out, Sawyer tripped on the block and landed on his bum. He looked confused and then  fussed for a minute. When asked what happened and he said, “Fell.” When asked why  he replied, “Block.”  After a little clarification and a simple, “Walking backwards is dangerous.” He moved on and was right back to playing with his pals. We are not suggesting for a second that this incident ended the walking backward phenomenon but we will suggest that it is the accumulation of these experiences that eventually teaches him (and therefore ceases the behavior) that walking backwards is dangerous.

Learning to watch where you are going and, in all possible circumstances, walk forward is a product of cumulative experience. It is not a function of  the words we use in warning of or response to the “failures” that children encounter. If we don’t take the time to step back, analyze the situation, and ensure that we provide those structured opportunities for failure, our children will only have our words. Unfortunately that’s not enough. Experience is the true teacher.

Acknowledging our own anxieties about failure is not easy.  What’s more is that we sometimes hold our children to a different standard than we do ourselves.  After all, they represent our hopes, our dreams.  We don’t want them to make the same mistakes that we did and we sometimes doubt their ability to see how their actions just might affect their future.  But success is about risk-taking and risk-taking is. . . risky!  Conventional wisdom in the world of business tells us that the the greater the risk, the greater the reward.  In the United States, the biggest risk-takers are also some of our greatest entrepreneurs.    But children aren’t going to succeed with every risk they take, nor do we.  When we take a risk, the threat of failure becomes palpable.  What’s important is that we capitalize on these opportunities by carving out time for personal reflection and self-monitoring.  When we make mistakes, we ask:  What is it that I was trying to achieve?  What stood in the way of achieving my goals?  What could I have done differently to achieve a different outcome and what action steps must I take in order to achieve my goal?  Once we can answer these questions, we begin the process of building a brighter vision for ourselves, of self-acceptance, and even more importantly, self-reliance.  After all, in the words of Sumner Redstone,  “Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe”