How to fail...

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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Learning how to fail is a vital skill that our pupils are not developing – leaving them vulnerable to life’s ups and downs. Dr Pooky Knightsmith explains and advises

An important skill that our children need if they are to successfully ride the wave of life’s ups and downs, without finding themselves flailing for air after being hit by an especially nasty rip tide, is the ability to fail.

While I am consistently impressed by the levels of emotional literacy displayed by the younger generations, I am also deeply worried by the degree of perfectionism that is present too.

Whether it is taking 25 selfies and applying half a dozen filters before uploading a picture to Instagram, whether it is consuming endless YouTube tutorials to help them sculpt the perfect body, face or hair, or whether it is their unwillingness to accept anything other than top marks in their preferred hobbies or studies, this is a generation which is driven by unrelenting standards and which is surrounded by the perfectly airbrushed lives of their social networks – both online and offline.

Being driven by perfection and a fear of failure doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing – but it can play out with very negative consequences, either in the shape of a young person who limits their experiences, unwilling to try new things for fear that they might get it wrong, or by a hard fall from a great height when they fail for the first time.

It is important, therefore, that we expose pupils to failure and, if possible, that parents are on board with this too. It is not that hard to do once we reframe failure a little and recalibrate the conversation. And no, I’m not advocating anything so grand as the flash in the pan “failure weeks” of a few years back, but rather a slight shift in attitude that prepares pupils for the knocks that life will throw at them – while they are still in the safety of the school environment. So, here are some simple steps that we might take.

Reframing failure with pupils and parents

Many of us have told pupils that “fail” stands for “first attempt in learning” but have we really meant it?

If we really embed this philosophy, we end up with a classroom where pupils feel able to apply their existing skills, knowledge and understanding in a new context in the full knowledge that they may not be successful right away, but safe in the understanding that they will learn something in the process that may bring them closer to success next time.

By celebrating innovation, progress and determination as well as success, we support our pupils to become more adventurous learners and also the kind of people who can take their failures on the chin, dusting themselves off ready for another try.

Role-model failure

One of the easiest ways for pupils to learn that it is okay not to succeed first time, every time, is when they see the trusted adults in their lives modelling this.

Teachers and parents can do this by stepping out of our comfort zones and trying new things alongside our pupils – extra-curricular activities can offer a great opportunity for this. It can be hard to step away from the idea that we must always be the expert in the room, but learning with your pupils and letting them see you fluff up occasionally – and having fun along the way – can help to give them permission to give new things a go too.

This is maybe something to think about before you turn down the chance to try willow-weaving, yoga, boxercise or Mandarin on your next school trip.

Create context and explore what if?

It is not uncommon for pupils to become pretty blinkered in their approach to exams and results – whichever set of exams they are currently facing will be the most important ones they have experienced to date, and it can feel like a lot hangs in the balance.

For some, the fear of not living up to expectations looms so large that they feel unable to try, or anxiety prevents them from performing to their best. In this case, it can be helpful to put things in perspective a little and to explore “what if?”

When we understand the genuine ramifications of a worst-case scenario, this can often ease the burden a little. We can also explore what happens if we do well, but not quite as well as we had hoped. It is important to strike a balance, because of course we want pupils to strive for success – but we also need to help them to understand that some days we all fall shy of the standards we set ourselves, but that the world will not stop spinning on its axis, and we will need to find a way forwards.

Ultimately, our pupils need to learn that in life, the true test comes not from never falling, but from our ability to right ourselves after a fall – and the classroom is a great place for this learning to take place.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Pooky provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to You can contact Pooky via


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