Are your students afraid of failure?


Are children today too afraid of failure, taking risks or thinking for themselves? Professor Tanya Byron says that students need to develop emotional intelligence and resilience if they are to succeed. But how can schools approach this challenge?

From children’s behavioural problems to psychological and emotional issues, Professor Tanya Byron has just about seen it all during her 23-year career as a clinical psychologist.

She has also worked in the areas of drug dependency, HIV/AIDS and sexual health, eating disorders and adult mental health and in 2008 was commissioned by former prime minister Gordon Brown to undertake an independent review into the effects of the internet and video games on children.

As a clinician, Prof Byron is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing rate of anxiety disorders she is seeing among children and young people. 

She believes that many youngsters lack “emotional intelligence and emotional resilience”. A lot of them are afraid of failure, afraid to take risks, and afraid to think for themselves.

Prof Byron will be talking about her concerns next month when she gives a keynote speech and workshop at the SSAT’s National Conference, which takes place on December 4 and 5 in Liverpool.

In a speech entitled Empowering all young people to realise unlimited potential, she will outline her firm belief that parents, teachers and schools must do more to help children develop attributes such as self-awareness, self-motivation, empathy and the ability to manage relationships.

Prof Byron told SecEd: “What we are seeing clinically is that an increasing number of young people who are bright, and who stereotypically don’t come from backgrounds where you would predict a greater chance of them having emotional, psychological or mental health problems, are breaking down. 

“The question is why? In the world of child and adolescent mental health there is a real concern that we have a generation of children and young people who are lacking massively in emotional resilience. 

“This is important because when it comes to predicting life success – that’s not just careers, but relationships, quality of life, wellbeing and mental health – IQ is only part of the story. Fundamentally, being successful is more than ‘what you know’. It’s about the way you use knowledge, how you analyse it, how you synthesise it and how you apply it.”

One person who exemplifies Prof Byron’s view is Sir John Gurdon, who won the Nobel Prize earlier this year for his pioneering work on cloning. At age 15, Sir John was ranked bottom out of 250 boys in biology and his school report (now hanging on his office wall) declared that studying science at university would be “a sheer waste of time”. Sixty years later, he is recognised as one of the finest scientists of his generation.

Prof Byron’s own teachers said she would never be “a high flyer” and she cites a host of other examples of hugely successful people who did not excel at school. 

They include straight-talking businessman Lord Sugar, who left school at 16 to sell car aerials, and film producer and Open University chancellor Lord Puttnam, who took five O levels and got three.

“These are people who have become real game-changers in their professions – innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers,” said Prof Byron. “But if you dig into how they managed to do this, their schooling seems to be the least important aspect of their long-term success. Obviously I’m not saying that we should just let all our kids fail and take them skate-boarding and mountain-climbing instead, but it does question the education system, the pedagogy and the way we teach children.”

Prof Byron, pictured below, also believes that our “risk-averse culture” does youngsters a huge disservice. “Children are being raised in captivity,” she said. “When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike? Children are not really encouraged, supported or taught how to assess, take and manage risk and I think that it is developmentally catastrophic for them. Risk-taking is seen as a very dangerous thing and to be avoided at all costs. 

“We live in a litigious, risk-averse culture where paranoia is rife and we have an education system that is so built around targets and testing that teachers and headteachers are constrained from being innovative. 

“But risk-taking is important because it helps children to accept, understand and embrace failure. The times when you fail are often the most powerful learning experiences one can ever have. 

“When I talk to successful people and ask them about their most cherished memories in terms of how they got to be where they are, it’s usually built around times when they messed up. But boy did that really teach them something. It got them to expand their thinking and their learning and inspired them to push on in the most impressive way.” 

But despite her concerns, Prof Byron remains optimistic that teachers and schools can empower and enable today’s young people to fulfil their potential.

She is inspired, for instance, by the Flipped Learning approach of US academic Professor Eric Mazur, who will also be speaking at the SSAT National Conference. 

Prof Mazur has written a book – Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual – about the benefits of getting students to prepare for classes by watching videos, listening to podcasts and reading books and online material. The students come up with questions and problem areas and then work collaboratively in class to answer questions and solve problems, with their teachers engaging with groups of learners as needed.

“The Flipped Learning concept is important because it fits right within what most innovative educators embrace,” said Prof Byron. 

“It’s not enough just to teach knowledge, comprehension and application. In order to be truly successful and innovative, you have to teach higher order cognitive skills – skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. I want to see children becoming collaborative, self-directed learners, to have a sense of ownership for their learning and for the outcomes of their learning.

“If we just teach children content built around core curricular subjects then we are not teaching them how to think. But if we can teach them the importance of self-awareness, self-motivation, social awareness and empathy, the ability to manage relationships and work as part of a team, problem-solving and goal-setting, then we are going to develop a much brighter, innovative, entrepreneurial next generation.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information
Professor Tanya Byron will discuss her work at the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool on December 4 and 5. You can download SecEd’s official conference preview supplement at or visit the SSAT website at


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