Success is Built On A Foundation Of Failures

In Education, Private School Brentwood on January 14, 2020 at 7:32 pm

Currey IngramIf you are a parent, you already know that watching your children suffer the consequences of mistakes is hard. After all, they are our perpetual babies, and we only want them to be happy. However, the experience of trying, failing, or making a bad decision is a crucial part of the growing up process. Not only does failure mold a young person’s personality, but it is also an opportunity for self-reflection and gives them the tools to be more confident at home and at school. We recently reached out to a few boarding schools for advice on letting teens and tweens make mistakes. Currey Ingram Academy, located in Brentwood, TN (a city near Nashville), responded with plenty of practical advice.

How mistakes play a role in adolescent development

Mistakes come in many shapes and forms. As our children grow into young adults, they must learn to be responsible for themselves. The mistakes they make along the way to adulthood are an opportunity to learn about independence. For example, your child fails to read an assignment rubric all the way through and misses a crucial component. Their paper is well written, but they receive an F because they neglected to include the requested information. As a parent, one of our first reactions might be to contact the teacher to request leniency and a passing grade.

What does this do for the student? Unfortunately, it only teaches them that they always have a safety net and are not fully responsible for their own actions. Instead, allow them to take a failing grade and whatever consequences come with it. They might have to miss out on classroom rewards, but they will soon learn from this mistake and come out on the other end a better student.

Teachers who understand the special needs of school-age children with learning disabilities know that watching mistakes unfold is emotionally wrenching. However, young people must have missteps in their history as they serve as the building blocks of basic problem-solving skills. While teenagers still need guidance as they learn about the world around them, allowing them to make age-appropriate blunders builds confidence. They can also lead to resounding successes.

History is full of examples of ways that making a mistake turned out to be the best possible action. Teabags were the result of a misunderstanding between a vendor and a customer. The vendor packaged loose tea samples in a silk pouch; the client did not remove the leaves from their tiny bag before dunking it in hot water. Cornflakes were a manufacturing mistake, Post-it notes were created from a failed glue experiment, and penicillin was born when Alexander Fleming failed to properly sterilize Petri dishes in his laboratory. The point is that if mistakes were never allowed to happen, the world we live in would be much different today.

Teaching healthy responses

Administrators from the boarding school in Brentwood explain that teaching young people how to handle mistakes starts with modeling acceptance behaviors. When they see the adults in their lives accept the consequences of their actions without negativity, they learn to respond in kind. As a parent, you can showcase the practice of mistake acceptance by not overreacting when you make a misstep yourself. Forget to pick up eggs and need to bake a cake? Avoid the temptation to grumble about an extra trip to the store. Instead, load everyone up and talk about how fun your kitchen time will be.

Another way to encourage a healthy response in the face of adversity is to show empathy for errors, whether they were intentional or not. If your student gets angry with a friend and calls them the name and then feels guilty about it, listen to them. In this scenario, they may have let their emotions take over. While there are hurt feelings on both sides, this is simply a lesson in anger management. When situations like this happen at boarding schools, staff typically do not intervene but are instead on standby for moral support. 

Educators from the Nashville area special needs school often teach that making a mistake is like using a GPS. When you are driving a vehicle and miss your turn, your vehicle’s internal guidance system tells you to make a U-turn as soon as it is legal and safe. The same principle can easily be applied to make mistakes. In the above-mentioned plot, the student might need to turn around and go back to where they began, which is with their friend. Chances are, a heartfelt apology will be accepted, and they can move forward with their friendship.

Another idea is to make a point to share your own mistakes. Dr. Jane Hannah, the Brentwood boarding school’s Upper School Division head, suggests opening up a conversation about mistakes at the dinner table each evening. Talk about the challenges of your own day and how your first response may not have been the best one. Make a point to emphasize the lessons you learned along the way.

One of the most important things teens can learn is that it is okay to make mistakes and that a single bad decision is not going to ruin their lives. Teach that mistakes are not failures until the person making it refuses to take the blame.

Currey Ingram Academy is a boarding school for students with learning differences. Located in Brentwood, Tennessee, the 83-acre campus houses students from 33 states and eight countries. Visit for more details.

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