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A fear of failure can prevent young people from reaching their true potential.

Teenagers are of the age where they’re meant to take risks, make mistakes, learn and then move forward as more wiser and capable individuals.

But the obsession with being perfect in academic studies or in one’s personal life, or even both, is overwhelming. Bringing social media into the mix has brought impossible standards of perfection where a fear of failing these ideals is preventing young people from reaching their real potential.

Poor Outcomes

According to Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School’s Director of Student Wellbeing, Brett Borbely, a fear of failure can be truly paralysing and potentially traumatising. She links human connection to student outcomes, and when this connection becomes threatened, the fight, flight or freeze response takes over. “Learning takes a massive hit when in trauma response because we don’t actually record information in the same way we do when we’re calm, comfortable and have a sense of belonging” Brett explains.

When a fear of failure becomes overwhelming in nature, it stops us from being motivated and encourages avoidance. Learning dramatically stops and our ability to make decisions for the long term is threatened.

But it’s also associated with behaviours that interfere with learning, such as repetitive checking and correcting, overworking and reassurance seeking, or behaviours that are limiting, such as procrastination, resignation, and self-criticism.

The Avoidance of Failure

These behaviours and reactions to a potential harming of human connection for many, leads into the idea that perfectionism plays into a fear of failure. Brett believes this wholeheartedly. “By trying to be perfect, we are always going to shut down those vulnerable sides of ourselves,” she explains. “If you shut down vulnerability you shut down creativity, learning opportunities and opportunities for love, joy and connection.”

Perfectionism is really an avoidance of failure, but if failure is the only way we succeed, then how will we ever know better if we don’t give ourselves an opportunity to learn?

Inspired to Strive

Today, many Australian schools are turning to a method developed by American psychologist Dr Carol Dweck more than 30 years ago. In her research, Dweck noticed attitudes about failure were central to a student’s academic success. Some students rebounded after a failure, while others seemed devastated by even the smallest setback. 

Dweck coined the term “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe these different attitudes to learning and intelligence. If students believe they can improve and they understand that effort will lead to success, they are more likely put in extra time and effort into their studies. Which, of course, leads to greater success. 

This "growth mindset" concept is powerful in the classroom because it helps create an environment where students are inspired to strive, and not afraid to fail. “For students to become independent and successful adults, they must also know how to overcome disappointment and face adversity,” explains Dr Deborah Priest, Principal of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School. “They need to be comfortable with failure as becoming one step closer to success.” 

Counteracting the Quest for Perfectionism

As a teacher of Mathematics herself, Brett Borbely discusses how a lot of learning takes place by creating a safe environment for students, where teachers need to model risk taking and learning, making a mistake, acknowledging it, embracing it and moving forwards. She explains there is a necessity for teachers to re-repeat this model over and over throughout the year to give students the opportunity to trust that you mean it.

“We will combat perfectionism by modelling what it looks like ourselves and then setting those expectations within our classroom of a safe environment” Brett states.

Building Resilience

For many high achievers, however, getting “comfortable with failure” is easier said than done. 

Which is why Ivanhoe Girls’ was the scene of a remarkable experiment in teaching students the importance of failure as a model for learning. 

The School embarked on a ground-breaking “Failure Week” to help students counter their ideas of perfectionism. Students and teachers were encouraged to try new things, to laugh at themselves as they failed, and to learn from their mistakes. From stand-up comedy and portrait painting, to knitting and archery, students were encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, try new activities, accept their failures, and use them to learn and build resilience.

Failure Week promoted the importance of making mistakes in learning and growing, in an attempt to address the mental health impact of perfectionism in its students. 

By exploring this fear of failure, it’s important to acknowledge the three elements needed to really be driven by motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. “If teachers want to support students with motivation and willingness to move through a fear of failure, we have to give them choice and opportunities to make choices that are relevant to them, because they have to go towards a sense of purpose.” The Director of Student Wellbeing further explains that we have to develop competency along with autonomy and purpose. If our students just stick with mastery, it won’t move from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, and ultimately we want to create lifelong learners at our school.