Helping your students to handle success and failure


Being unable to handle failure, or indeed success, can be damaging for our students. Dr Stephanie Thornton considers how we can foster a healthy attitude to success and failure in the young.

You set yourself a task. You work hard towards it. And it all goes wrong. You fail. How do you feel about that? How will that affect your future efforts? 

Of course, all of us have “been there”: those who say they have never suffered a setback or failure are either lying, or have never tried to do anything worthwhile! 

And of course, how we react to setbacks and failures will depend on many things: how much the particular goal in question mattered, for instance; or how public our failure was, and so forth. 

Generally, the impact of success or failure on future behaviour is discussed in relation to the impact on self-esteem: does failure damage self-esteem in destructive ways? How does self-esteem level prior to failure mediate that effect?

Self-esteem is a slippery and complex concept – as a short perusal of the research will reveal. Recent research suggests that in focusing so hard in that direction we are missing a trick. In fact, the impact of triumph or disaster on self-esteem (whether high or low) and subsequent behaviour seems to depend crucially on our attitudes to those “two imposters”. 

The basic way we construe the concepts of success and failure may be the most important factor of all, determining whether failure destroys motivation and self-confidence or spurs us to new effort, and whether success is good for us or ultimately destructive (as, paradoxically, it can be).

Unhealthy attitudes to success and failure are all around us. We make silly attributions about specific experiences of success or failure (“I handled that task badly, it all went wrong, I am a failure!” being the classic example, an error that undermines far too many of our young. But taking all the credit for success is often just as mistaken, and just as dangerous. 

Then, we take too narrow a view of success, so that “only” winning a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics was publicly viewed as “a failure” for one poor British athlete (an attitude that dooms almost all of us to “failure”). And we sometimes make any slip-up the bogeyman: a threat too much to bear.

Take, for example, the case of Jack: he’s the class star at maths – and rightly proud of his powerful numeracy. He is tipped for top grades and a university place in the subject! But in calculating who owes who what after a trip to the football with his mates he makes a simple arithmetical error. 

When this is pointed out (by a less numerate friend) he cannot admit his mistake – though it is obviously wrong. For Jack, being a maths star is vital, a key element in his identity; he has few resources for handling mistakes or failures, however trivial. And so he denies that he can have made an error until the matter is brought to a fairly public head and he is forced to admit it. 

Inevitably he ends feeling embarrassed and humiliated. How very much better off he would have been, had he been comfortable with the possibility that he could sometimes make an elementary mistake – even in an area so close to his expertise – and that that is okay?

How attitudes are formed

So very many of the fundamental attitudes that carry us through life are not taught to us overtly. They are projected to us, through the behaviour and words of role-models. And so it is with attitudes to success and failure. 

The young pick up implicit messages – from the media as much as from school or family – messages that are not necessarily very healthy. The result is that many teenagers conceptualise success and failure in unconstructive, or even destructive ways. 

Can schools offer healthier messages about success and failure to the young, if we take a more explicit line in teaching in this area? Three key concepts will help:


The value of a human being has nothing to do with success or failure in any activity. That is a concept taught by every religion in the world, and enshrined in the political idea of Universal Human Rights. It is an idea at the root of our political and judicial institutions, and is inherent in the fundamental structures of our educational system. 

And yet, in our modern world where competition and league tables are ubiquitous, where rewards – both material and personal – are so unevenly distributed, where the pressures created by the economic squeeze are so great, it is easy for the young (and the not-so-young, for that matter) to conflate achievement and self-worth in damaging ways. 

In our desire to motivate the young to achieve, we easily leak messages that inadvertently endorse that approach, accidentally fostering low self-esteem (and low motivation) in the less able – and creating youngsters like Jack, for whom success is dangerously integral to identity. 

The first step toward fostering a healthy perspective on success and failure is to make salient the fundamental truth: we are all of equal value, even if some of us can do maths (for example) and others cannot.

But how, then, if we are to treat those who achieve and those who do not as equally worthy of respect, do we encourage the young to aspire to achieve? 

Make it personal

An inspirational teacher points out that, however able or otherwise you are, there is always going to be someone better than you are – and there will always be someone not so good as you. That may not be in this class, or this week, but somewhere, sometime. So competing against others is as mad as trying to be the front car driving around the M25! (as mad as a Minnow in a little pond “swanking” that it is a very big fish, or a Minky whale feeling dwarfed in the ocean). 

In reality, the only sensible benchmark is yourself: success is about trying to be better today than you were yesterday. This is actually a very powerful idea. 

Accepting this truth creates an attitude that fosters aspiration and motivation – and at the same time, puts setbacks and comparisons between self and others (whether one feels like the minnow or the Minky whale) in a healthy perspective.

Prepared to fail

To succeed, you have to be prepared to fail. The most successful adventurers, entrepreneurs, scientists, writers (and everyone else) are people who dared to take the risk of trying something new, very likely failing, and going on to try something else – until something works. No-one has to be perfect! 

Every “super-succeeder” will agree with that. It is the individuals who dare to fail who ultimately achieve the most. Accepting this idea can utterly change our perception of a failure or setback: failure is not the opposite of success, rather, it is a key part of the process of working toward a more successful outcome. 

The message of failure is never “you’re a failure”. It is always – “plan A didn’t work” (so maybe try harder? Switch to plan B? Aim for something else altogether?). Viewed constructively, setbacks are just “opportunities, heavily disguised as problems”.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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