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8 Ways to Help Students Frozen by Fear of Failure

Pat Hensley, Teaching.monster.com

Pat Hensley retired after 27 years of teaching in the classroom. She currently teaches graduate courses as an adjunct instructor for Furman University. She was chosen 2006 Teacher of the Year for her school and a district Top 10 Finalist (out of 5000 teachers). She is Nationally Board Certified as an Exceptional Needs Specialist and is on the National Board of Directors for the Council for Exceptional Children. Pat comments on education and her experiences at Successful Teaching.


Many of my students have failed so much already that they are so discouraged. Many of them had given up and were either withdrawn or were behavior problems. Many of them feared failing again — one more time — and they just couldn’t deal with that again. They already felt they weren’t good enough, were told they didn’t study enough, or accused of being lazy etc.
I decided I needed to come up with a strategy to help them overcome this fear. Of course, not one of them would ever admit that they were afraid of anything so I had to make sure I kept the words “fear” and “afraid” out of any conversation.
Here are some of the things that I would do.
1. Give them short assignments on their level that they could be successful doing.
2. Once they succeeded, ask them to help others who needed help. (great confidence booster)
3. Keep a close watch so as soon as I read any body language that there was a problem, I swooped in to prompt and encourage so they could get the right answers. 
4. As they became successful and more confident, move to a more difficult level (but do it in small steps)
5. If they get the wrong answer, help them discover how to get the right answer. Then ask them to try again and give lots of praise when they arrive at the correct answer.
6. Don’t make such a big deal about making mistakes but make lots of fuss about getting it correct.
7. When they get stuck and refuse to go any further, stop and calmly discuss their feelings with them. Ask them — “What is the worst thing that can happen if you try? So you get the wrong answer. I’m here to help you get it right so don’t worry!” Now is the time to use the “afraid” word — “What are you afraid of?” Usually that will get them annoyed enough to try because they have to prove that they aren’t afraid of anything. Of course I need to stay close by so I can help them be successful.
8. As they achieve more and more success, I can back off and let them work more on their own. Once they feel confident, the mistakes just don’t seem as bad as they did and they will try harder and harder things.
When I mention that I need to help them be successful, I don’t mean that I give them the answers. I might steer them into using the right process or help them figure out how to arrive at the right answer. Many times if there is a process that needs to be followed, I post the steps up in the classroom so we can go over each one as they are completed. Once the students get used to going through the process with my guidance, they usually can get it on their own.
Patience is the key to my students’ success. Students are very sensitive to any impatient tone of voice or body language that I use and they will shut down. I make it very clear to them that I am there to help them and they need to make me earn my money (I’m not talking about the kid who is too lazy to do their work. I’m talking about the ones who really want to succeed and are frozen with fear. You can usually tell the difference.) They usually appreciate when I say this and let me know they are asking for help, only because they feel they are “helping” me do my job.
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