Every Child Has a Right to Stop Failing

March 28, 2012 at 11:07 AM Leave a comment

Children learn how to make decisions and manage themselves through trial and error. Both rewards and consequences are important aspects of exploration. However, children must have the right scaffolding and supervision during that process. A child in a chaotic world cannot break his or her own failure cycle.

I am one of those teachers who are willing to drag a kid kicking and screaming all the way to a success if I must. Many children trapped in failure cycles jump into the fast lane to calamity as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too much time has passed since their last success for them to remember how it feels to be on the path to virtue. Someone has to engineer the right solution and restore the innocence of a world in which good things can happen.

This approach is not the only strategy in my toolkit, but it is one that cannot be discarded. Children of poverty, families in transition, individuals with depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse – all are examples of people who are prone to underrate their expectations for the future. Their ability to fight for a success is impaired, and someone needs to either raise their expectations or create a force that tips the scales in favor of a reward for their persistence. I do not recommend this as a way of life, of course; rather, a catalyst for change until they show the resilience to keep going on their own.

Failure often can be a learning experience, and children have both a right and a need to understand this. I get that. From an academic perspective, the scientific method must be robust enough to include the full spectrum of positive and negative outcomes. Creatively, children must test boundaries to discover new ways to solve problems. Behaviorally, children need valid feedback in response to their choices. Socially, children must have the right to find their own way through freedom of choice and less sheltered reality-testing. A decision tree without all of the options or consequences is unrealistic at best, dangerous at worst.

But I still selectively engage kids in episodes in which failure is not an option. Negative consequences can be meaningless to many children in distress. A child who has been labeled as bad for a while has well-developed defense mechanisms against even hearing negative feedback. A child in a chaotic world may see only randomness. A child with a substance abuse issue will seek a second opinion with a like-minded peer while getting high. A child with depression may just shut down entirely. Most cannot be mobilized or redirected without proper support and higher obstacles to failure.

This is my world view, not an artifact of urban experience. In fact, my kryptonite is the intersection of affluent suburbs, with quasi-utopian philosophies, and populations at risk. School psychologists working with the children of doctors, lawyers, and financiers often deal with children who are overwhelmed by their parents’ expectations for them. As advocates, they must fight for the student’s right to fail occasionally without hyperbolic reactions from parents, which can range from draconian consequences to overprotection. However, this approach to therapy can be counterproductive in programs for children with behavioral or emotional disabilities. Kids at risk need success trainers more than they need consequences regardless of their zip codes.

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Entry filed under: Philosophy, Student Outcomes.

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