How All Children Succeed: Managing Stress and the Benefits of Failure

The last post introduced the education experts at yesterday’s panel discussion, “How All Children Succeed”, and noted their focus on the critical role parents play in their children’s education. Today’s focus is on two other important issues raised in that discussion: Managing Stress and the Benefits of Failure.

Managing Stress

Having been a practicing child psychiatrist for eighteen years, Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and CEO of Turnaround for Children, Inc. (Turnaround), knows firsthand about the detrimental impact of stress on children and what can be done to manage it. Under her leadership Turnaround’s teams of educators and mental health professionals work with teachers in high poverty, low performing public schools to create learning environments which foster healthy intellectual, social, and emotional growth in each student. A significant part of their work involves understanding stress in children and helping teachers learn how to manage it.

Dr. Cantor explained yesterday that children under stress are often “distracted, tuned out, nervous, distrustful, and most notably, they can’t see a future for themselves.” Helping children to develop coping and adapting skills is key to their educational success. Turnaround’s research has determined that there is a narrow set of ways that children respond to trauma, and when teachers and school administrators are taught intervention methods designed to combat children’s response to trauma, they can see positive results. The most powerful way to mitigate a child’s stress, Dr. Cantor explains, is to ensure that the child establishes a connection to a caring, responsible adult, since even when stressed, “children don’t lose their ability to trust.” If it can’t be an adult at home, then it can be an adult at school. If the adult can consistently tell a stressed child that he is valuable, talk to him about the future that he can have and the things he can do, this adult can change the debilitating patterns in a child’s life.

Once the child establishes that bond with a caring adult, it becomes a motivating and reciprocal relationship, where the child feels as if he or she can’t let that adult down. Cantor calls this the “golden glue” that keeps the child together and moving in the right direction.

Takeaway? It is critically important for parents and teachers to understand and recognize the effects of stress on children and to provide support and stability to help them manage stress.

The Benefits of Failure

Panelists also talked about the importance of children learning how to recover and learn from failure. Dave Levin, founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), proudly reported, “I’m a big fan of failure. I’m a product of failure.” The panelists agreed that it is hard to find safe ways for kids to fail but it is important to give them the tools to deal with it. For example, teachers can give their students difficult work problems with the explanation that they don’t expect them to be able solve them quickly or easily (or at all), but the students should work on the problems until they can find a solution.

Levin believes that everyone who interacts with children can benefit from knowing how to deal with failure. He described a recent experience where he realized midway through teaching the lesson that he was doing a “terrible” job. Towards the end of the class he stopped and asked his students, “You didn’t understand that at all, did you?” When the students all confirmed that they were clueless, Levin admitted to them that he had done a terrible job teaching that day and promised to figure out how to be better the next day. By acknowledging his failure and explaining how he planned to deal with it, Levin believed everyone benefitted. “If we can keep demonstrating the shared journey of failure, we can make real progress”.

Dr. Cantor noted that failure for many children reinforces negative things they already believe about themselves and makes them inclined to give up. The key is to help children get on the pathway to find a positive solution, to encourage them to move from thinking “I am dumb” to thinking “At this moment I feel dumb and here’s how I will change that–I’ll figure out the point at which it became too tough to understand and I will work it through it or get help to understand it.”

Panelist Paul Tough described how Elizabeth Spiegel, an I.S. 318 chess teacher who leads a chess team which is among the best in the country is focused on helping her chess team deal with and manage failure. (For more about his team, see GCP post “Inspiration for Our Boys, and for All of Us: “Brooklyn Castle”, October 16, 2012.) Speigel lets her students know that she cares for and supports them but does not coddle them if they perform poorly. Immediately after each losing match she requires the teammates to go through the match again and explain (and correct) each mistake they made. No handholding here. Rather than use the hackneyed phrase “tough love” to describe how teachers should work with children to achieve these ends, Tough prefers the teachers to consider being “warm and demanding” with their children.

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As we consider these discussions it becomes evident that these methods that teachers are being taught to use in the classroom are important for parents to use at home as well. Teaching our children to manage stress and work through failure may be among the greatest gifts we can give them.

So if you hear your son (or daughter) announce “I can’t do this, I’m so dumb” or “I’m failing,” rather than being annoyed, or immediately diving into helping him clear whatever academic hurdle he is facing, try talking to him in a way that gives him the tools and the language to feel better about facing these situations. I plan to try this asap. Let us know how it goes for you.

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