When we think of the gifts we want to give our children, very few parents or teachers think of the gift of failure. We strive for success, often at all costs. Defining real success on behalf of our students and children, however, can be challenging. This past week, several MSMS teachers and administrators attended an interesting presentation at Boulder Country Day that looked at the connection between success and failure. The speaker was Jessica Lahey, author of the book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. As we listened to her talk about her experiences as a teacher and a mother, we were reminded of the power and unique nature of our learning environments at Mountain Shadows. Her research and insight also validated many things we already know and practice in our classrooms.

Ms. Lahey spoke of the fact (and it is a fact) that external motivators actually undermine learning and that it is only intrinsic motivators that challenge us to our best work and our deepest understanding. She handed out a bookmark with five Tips for Parents taken from her book. These tips deeply represent the educational program you, as MSMS parents, have chosen for your children. Here are the tips with some annotations I added about how they are practiced in our Mountain Shadows classrooms.

  1. Value the process of learning over the product of grades. Process over product is the mainstay of an AMI Montessori classroom. It is not that we don’t value a good product, but it is moreover that we recognize that learning happens while students are engaged in the process.
  2. Offer up more support, and less control. This is challenging for all of us not to rush in and make things happen or coach them in how we think something should be done or handled. Encouraging our children and extending support without doing things for them allows the best opportunity for them to truly problem solve.
  3. Remember that every rescue is a lesson lost. When things do not go as a child expects a truly teachable moment is created. At MSMS we strive to use those moments for deep and meaningful learning. We ask a question, suggest another perspective, but consciously and diligently try to refrain from stepping in and doing things that keep the student from learning what they need to learn from the experience.
  4. View failure as an opportunity for growth. This suggestion has much to do with our paradigm as adults. Are we confident enough in our children’s ability to problem solve to see failure as an essential part of the learning process? Do we truly believe that knowing what doesn’t work helps us learn strategies that will work more often? In our classrooms at MSMS we know that when a child tries something there are often reasons behind their strategies. When things don’t work out as they planned, they must grapple with why and develop another strategy. This process results in deep and meaningful learning.
  5. Model intellectual and emotional bravery for kids. This is a challenge and call to action for us as adults. To help children be willing to take on new challenges, we must be willing to do the same thing. We must look for opportunities to talk about learning new things, trying new things, and admitting that we are nervous or even scared. Children will watch to see how we handle obstacles, ask for help, and persevere. It is part of the reason at MSMS we are willing to admit when we don’t know. It is why, particularly in our elementary classrooms, we encourage students to go deep in a topic or skill and allow ourselves to be taught by them. Our classrooms have built a culture of trying and trying again. Today this is known as a growth mindset or executive function – in Montessori classrooms we have called it self-construction and responsible learning.

The gift of failure is a temporal gift that leads to strength of character, perseverance, internal motivation, and a strong sense of accomplishment when our students successfully complete a task or project. It is the hard road – for both teacher and student. There may be times when it feels that a child is making little to no progress, but that is when we must choose to wait and allow the child to carry themselves over the finish line. For a young child this may be successfully carrying their cup of water to the table, walking over an uneven path, or figuring out how to put on their own shoes. For an older child it might mean working through a difference with a friend, working harder than we think seems necessary to understand a math concept, or realizing that when they don’t take responsibility for something they lose other opportunities.

It is challenging for parents to watch their children in this process. We want to rescue them, but when we step in we are telling them we don’t think that they can do it. We want to empower them toward independence and that takes time and patience – on our part as well as on the part of the children. These are hard lessons, but they are so important.

At Mountain Shadows, we are investing in our students’ future in a way that will not allow us to sacrifice an important life lesson. We want them to develop a comfort level with errors that will keep them striving to get it right, figuring out how they can do it just a little differently, and to keep trying. It is hard work for all of us, but the result is a confident and competent child who does not turn away from challenge because they know to their very core that failure is just a step on the way to true success.

Liana Oram, Head of School

The Gift of Failure

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