CCE Corner – Managing Fear, Frustration, and Failure

March 5th, 2020

You’ve heard of the 3 R’s of education (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic). What about the three F’s? In this CCEC, we talk about Fear, Frustration, and Failure.

Lesson 9. Keep calm and choose well: managing fear, frustration, and failure.

When I asked my children what advice they might give students and parents in their first year of classical school, one of them said, “Tell them things like lit and comp will be really hard for the first year.”

There will very likely be times when you hear something like: “The other kids know so much more!” “I don’t know what the teacher wants!” “I can’t do this!” “I’m gonna fail.”

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s the parent’s job in these situations to calm everyone down. Yourself first. It’s like they tell you on an airplane: “Put on your own oxygen mask, before tending to your child.” You may be thinking, “I don’t know what the teacher wants either!” But, don’t let your child see your stress. Calmly try to calm him or her down.

We have a few ideas to share:
With regard to how much all the other kids seem to know—remind your child that it’s OK not to know something or how to do something; there is no shame in being a beginner. The other kids were beginners at one time too. Being a beginner well is an important skill for life.

With regard to teacher expectations—ask your child to try to remember what the teacher explained in school, look with him at any materials sent home, then encourage him to just do what he thinks he’s supposed to. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Remember, it takes time for teachers and students to figure each other out.

“I can’t do this!” “I’m gonna fail.”
Frustration is a natural part of learning. At Trinitas, we talk to incoming 5th grade parents since it’s a challenging year. Our literature and composition teacher gives them a model of the Learning Cycle you may find helpful too. (This model comes from faculty development training in the Army’s Command and General Staff College.)

Before you learn something new, you are:
Unconsciously Incompetent–you don’t know what you don’t know; you’re blissfully ignorant.

Then something new is introduced; now you are:
Consciously Incompetent—you’re aware that you don’t know something or don’t know how to do something; this is uncomfortable.

It’s also a choice point. The struggle and behaviors here may resemble the stages of grief:
Denial–this isn’t important or I already know how to do this
Anger–this is stupid; my teacher is stupid
Bargaining–if I do something else now, I’ll work on this another time
Depression–continued self-doubt and poor work or late work
If you make it through these and reach…
Acceptance–you can take the necessary steps to continue on the learning path to becoming…

Consciously Competent—you acquire knowledge and new capabilities with attention and effort and practice.

At the final stage, you are:
Unconsciously Competent—your knowledge and capabilities require less effort, they’ve become habitual, maybe even pleasant.

What happens once you reach the final stage? The whole process starts over again. If you make good choices, it’s a virtuous cycle and the habits and attitudes in one area can carry over into other areas—work, school, music, sports.

So, what can you do to help your child make the right choice at the choice point? First, even if you can’t convince her it’s a worthwhile activity, remind her that sometimes you simply have to do things you don’t want to do. Then, help her take the first step. As Mary Poppins and Aristotle said, “Well begun is half done”. Taking further inspiration from Ms. Poppins (“A spoonful of sugar”)—try to make the work slightly more interesting or fun, e.g., practice spelling words while jumping rope, add motions or pictures to memory work, use multi-colored pens for active reading in literature.

We’ve talked about fear and frustration, but what if failure happens? Remember: Keep calm. Also remember that experiencing failure, and learning from it, is a good thing. Never failing can produce a kind of fear of failure that prevents appropriate risk taking. In our own home, we’ve tried to handle academic failures (or disappointments) by asking a few questions: Could you have done something different to prepare for this and so what can you do next time? Do you know what you did wrong and do you understand the material now? (A lot of knowledge builds on itself.) You may have a hole to dig yourself out of, but it’s good not to get too worked up about it. And, to gain an inspiring perspective on failure, it may be helpful to recall the words of that great inventor Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We’ve looked at the three F’s of Fear, Frustration, and Failure. In our next CCEC, we’ll talk about a more pleasant one: Friendship.