Plans B, C and D: Learning how to bounce back

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The importance of having a back-up plan is clear. As exams season comes to a close, Karen Sullivan looks at helping students to consider their options

Social media, the press and many many households around the country have been littered with anxiety-ridden teens, stressed and distressed by exams, self-doubt and feelings of failure – a very poor reflection of an education system that should, for the most part, encourage a love of learning.

And although the exam season will soon be over, the next stage of angst will set in. What if desired or required grades aren’t achieved? What next?

To salvage the emotional health of our young people, we need to encourage them to come up with contingency plans. In other words, if Plan A isn’t going to come to fruition, what is the next best logical option? And if that doesn’t work out, what else is there?

I’m writing this now for a reason. Although some experts (and indeed teaching staff) suggest to students that they envision the “worst-case scenario” in advance of exams, potentially to reduce the feelings of dread, the truth is that this can backfire, too.

Research published in 2016 (Shin & Milkman) found that “the mere act of thinking through a back-up plan can reduce performance on your primary goal by decreasing your desire for goal achievement”.

In three experimental studies, they found that individuals randomly assigned to think through a back-up plan subsequently performed worse on their primary goal, noting that “this effect is mediated by study participants’ decreased desire to attain their primary goal”.

So, while we should urge students to focus on achieving their “Plan A”, and believe in their ability to be successful, when the exams are finished, it is important to ensure that they understand that there are other options, and that failing to meet expectations is not, in fact, failure at all.

Being able to think critically about the future, envision and plan, and work out strategies for success is not only empowering, but an excellent exercise in problem-solving and emotional intelligence.

Reworking perceived failure as an opportunity for change requires courage, initiative and forward-thinking, but it will make students more resilient and creative – qualities that will see them in good stead throughout the remainder of their academic careers and into their working lives. Students need to see that Plan A is a primary goal, and that secondary and tertiary goals are equally valid.

Research from 2013, undertaken by Marta Elvira et al and published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology analysed scientific papers over the previous 20 years and found that “quality of life” was dependent upon personal expectations and “goals of what we want from life”.

Integral to this is the “hope theory”, developed by Snyder and colleagues (Snyder, Harris et al, 1991), which characterised hope as a “human strength manifested in capacities to (a) clearly conceptualise goals (goals thinking), (b) develop the specific strategies to reach those goals (pathways thinking), and (c) initiate and sustain the motivation for using those strategies (agency thinking)”.

Hope is defined as the “perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways”, and, according to Snyder, hope theory is compared to theories of learned optimism, optimism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.

Higher hope consistently is related to better outcomes in academics, athletics, physical health, psychological adjustment, and psychotherapy.

Synder’s team found that: “High-hope as compared to low-hope individuals are more likely to develop alternative pathways, especially when the goals are important and when obstacles appear.”

Later research by the same team showed that “hope is built on a foundation of contingency thinking” and dramatically affects perceived competence and self-worth, and is related to life satisfaction, quality of life and wellbeing. Even more interestingly, grades improve when students have high hope levels, and there is no research to suggest that “false hope” exists.

If we can offer students hope, by helping them to develop contingency plans and strategies – effectively Plans B, C and D, or a virtual alphabet of opportunities – there can be a significant increase in motivation, self-belief and, ultimately, success.

Take a form or PSHE period to talk about options, about resetting goals well in advance of existing goals potentially being unmet. Ask students to come up with two or three (or more) contingency plans, and request that they research these fully, defining a clear pathway towards fulfilling them.

So, for example, if a student’s grades may not be strong enough for entry to a chosen university or college, internship, Apprenticeship, what else can they do? A different place of learning? An entirely different career choice? Extra courses to make up for a shortfall?

The key is to encourage them to come up with goals that are both satisfying and achievable; in other words, “I’ll become a pop star or a model instead” isn’t really going to cut it, unless they have recognised potential to achieve this, and a considered and viable strategy to do so.

Their research will help them to ascertain what is possible and what is not; however, the point of the exercise is to create a series of goals, define obstacles, come up with contingencies and, ultimately, provide hope and motivation.

Students need to learn that we can’t always predict or even control the outcome of events and efforts, but we can prepare ourselves for the possibility of failure and continue to persevere in the face of setbacks.

While students will undoubtedly be relieved that the pressure of revision and exams is over (for now), the ensuing weeks can see that pressure intensify.

There will be comfort and empowerment in knowing that whatever the results, there is hope. and there are options. And in terms of happiness and wellbeing, that is a very good place to be.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to

Further information

  • How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure, Shin and Milkman, 2016. Research summarised in the Washington Post:
  • For more on hope theory and related discussion, try Measuring and Promoting Hope in Schoolchildren, 2014, Routledge.
  • A list of 10 apps for student goal-setting can be found at:


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