Society has conditioned us to believe that the WORST POSSIBLE experience in life is failure.
This notion of success being a perfect one-size-fits all goal is unrealistic, unfair and actually just detrimental. So, if your child comes home with a report that states the dreaded F-word (I am referring to ‘fail’), take a breath, read this article, reflect and then approach the challenge of turning this around.
The concept of ‘failing’ needs to be reframed. Of course it is difficult and concerning if your child does fail at school, but it is also a challenge that can be overcome. Failure is the opportunity to understand exactly what you don’t know and to establish ways to grasp content. The basic principle that underlines a child failing is the identification of the problem: is your child suffering from a lack of understanding, a lack of motivation, or a personal issue?
At the core of your assistance, remember that children do not have the same level of emotional resilience as adults. Simply expecting your child to act immediately and get on with it is not going to work. At the same time, swooping in and taking over the failure as your own is not going to help either; this simply encourages ‘learned helplessness’, making your child think that they can sit back while someone else fixes the problem. Navigating this tricky balance is not easy, but, just like overcoming failure, it is possible.
Step 1: Open Communication
Before getting angry, or emotional, or flying into action mode, ask your child if he or she is okay. This is a fundamental opportunity to build character and resilience, and can have a lasting effect on your child.
Allow for an open conversation to occur, where you ask open-ended questions, without judgement, to determine why your child thinks he or she may have failed. Ask questions like: how could your study methods be improved? Which personal issues may have hampered progress? What effort levels do you see as acceptable?
Not only will you get a sense of where the problem lies, but it redirects your child’s focus and emotions to a more structured plan, as opposed to feeling like a complete let-down with no way out. Avoid ‘why’ questions, as these could make your child feel interrogated and resentful.
Step 2: Teacher Meetings
Your child’s teachers are the best source of information in terms of academic concerns. Set up appointments with relevant subject teachers. Email ahead of time and ensure that the following information will be provided at your meeting: all tasks and tests from the term in a file, marks per task for the term, feedback about the problem areas per task and the strategies that will best assist your child.
Make sure to ask about the school’s remedial extra lessons (usually free of charge) and about the school’s SBST (Student Based Support System). If your child has failed a grade, he or she will be assigned a SBST mentor, and that teacher will help you with a more general overview. Parents do not always realise that all these structures are available, and asking for more information will be a massive benefit.
Step 3: Chat To The School Counsellor
Once you have received all the necessary academic information, make an effort to communicate with the school counsellor. Not only will your child need some objective emotional support after realising that they have failed, but it may very well be an emotional rather than academic reason for failure in the first place. Many learners struggle with issues at school, like bullying, anxiety and depression; this cannot be ignored as a potential cause of concern. Evaluate your home life in order to understand if something happening within the family structure could also be adding extra stress and pressure onto your child’s shoulders.
Step 4: Get Structured
Another reason that a school counsellor is always a good idea is that they can provide actual learning strategies and study methods that best suit your child. Many learners don’t study because they don’t actually know HOW to study. This means that your child is being set up for failure before even attempting the task. A counsellor will be able to recommend a way for your child to learn that suits their actual personality and cognitive abilities.
Step 5: Consider A Professional Assessment
An educational psychologist can provide a professional assessment to measure intellectual, cognitive, academic, and emotional development to comprehend your child’s overall functioning. This enables identification of strengths and weaknesses, with the aim of maximising potential through relevant support and intervention. If your child is struggling academically across the board, this report is going to give you the best understanding to facilitate improvement. You will be able to tell if your child requires a scribe, reader, spelling concession or even extra time. Once the school has this report, these structures will again be put into place by the SBST managers.
Step 6: Match Structure To Goals
Your child obviously needs a plan of action if they have failed at school. Assist your child by showing them how to set a schedule and an organisation routine. The best way to encourage this is to connect the structure to goals.
For example: if your child needs to work on comprehension skills in English (which to be fair actually covers all subjects), plan 20 minutes a day where your child practises reading for comprehension. At the end of the week, assess a short reading passage that your child has interpreted and meet the goal of fine tuning that small part of English academics. Each week, another facet can be practised with a goal of a 5% achievement by the end of week.
These micro-goals will teach your child to be consistent, put in the effort and enjoy a feeling of accomplishment.
Step 7: Be Realistic
Everyone has different skills and talents. Expecting your child to be an academic genius when their interests and skills are more directed at sport and culture is not realistic. Of course, your child must work to the best of their ability, but make sure that you acknowledge that ability.
If I were expected at school to be an A-student in Physics, I would probably, 20 years later, still be sitting in that class trying to scrape 60%. I am now comfortable enough in my skill set to know that I am intelligent and creative, but I just can’t connect with Science. I worked to the best of my ability, and was proud of my 60% average, because I knew I had tried my best. Allow the same safe spaces for your children.
If there really is a subject issue, consider changing subjects. In Grade 11, I dropped Physics like a hot potato and excelled at Physiology. Truth be told though, I have never used it. But I thought a ‘sciencey’ subject was a must to succeed; realistically this is nonsense!
Step 8: Celebrate Improvement
What can really demotivate a child is not celebrating improvement, but rather looking to celebrate academic brilliance.
I taught a Grade 9 boy last year who really struggled academically. When my fan broke, he fixed it in five minutes, but he struggled to answer test questions. He scored 14% for his first Language test, which was obviously a major cause for concern. His mom and I met and he was soon following all the steps above. By term 3, his Language test mark was 36%. Now objectively, yes: this is a fail. But I gave him his test back and instead of writing ‘this is disappointing; you have not passed’ all over the script in red ink, I wrote: “This is amazing! You have improved by a whopping 22%!” By the end of the year, he achieved 58% and passed Grade 9. He felt so motivated each time that he improved and he kept wanting to feel that
To end with some tried and tested anecdotes:
- There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
- Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.
- Failure is truly life’s greatest teacher. When we stop being afraid of failure and accept it, then only we are able to think big and we push ourselves to do our best.
These clichés might sound cheesy, but they make sense and are repeated for a reason. Your child is not a failure at life simply because of a bad report; you also are not a reflection of that failure.
Last one: The comeback is always greater than the setback.