Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Controlled Failure: Helping Kids Navigate Back to Success

University Park Campus School encourages students to take risks and, if they fail, helps them take responsibility for their own learning and success.

June 1, 2016
Photo credit: Edutopia

Editor's Note: Student names were changed in this piece.

Allowing Students to Take Risks

Controlled failure represents a continuum of success. It's not just black and white -- there is actually an opportunity for growth in every failure that we experience. University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester, Massachusetts allows students to take risks, whether it's a dual enrollment class that they may not be ready for, an AP class that they may fail, or a college-like schedule for seniors -- complete with free time that they might waste.

Teaching Students to Rise Up From Defeat

So many of our students are dealing with major struggles in their everyday lives, and giving up or avoiding the issues altogether is not an option. Our students need to understand that struggling and failing are natural, and that the most important part of defeat is the determination to get back up, try again, and move forward.

The idea is that while students are at UPCS, the staff has the opportunity to build each student back up from failure. This may not always look the same for each student. Some need to try a difficult task again. Some must learn to speak up for themselves and practice self-advocacy. Some should be developing time-management skills. And many students would benefit from talking through their failures with the staff at UPCS, discussing where they went wrong and how they can do better. The point of controlled failure is that the University Park staff are in control of teaching students how to come back from defeat before they go out into the world and face bigger challenges.

Student Case Study: Letting Brittany Fail a College Course

A great example of controlled failure occurred with a student named Brittany. As a junior, Brittany begged to take a class at Clark University, the college that we collaborate with. Her teachers and guidance counselor knew that she wasn't ready and that the class would likely overwhelm her. Knowing this, however, the staff at UPCS let her take the class. Brittany was in way over her head, but rather than bail her out when she asked to drop the class after the add/drop period, they kept her in it.

Brittany met with the guidance counselor and college transition coordinator to figure out how she should proceed. They advised her to attend office hours and find a study group. She took some of this advice, but ultimately failed the class. She felt discouraged. During her Planning for Education Progress (PEP) meeting -- a student-led meeting for all 11th-grade students to prepare for college and life after high school -- she expressed concern that she wouldn't succeed in college because she'd failed the class. Brittany's teachers and the support staff encouraged her to take another college class in her senior year. She did, and she passed.

Her failure did not defeat her because she was supported by the faculty and picked back up again. The guidance counselor and support staff helped Brittany organize her schedule and taught her time management skills that would help her balance her high school classes, Clark class, and part-time job. They also encouraged her to seek out friends to study with or go to the professor when she needed help. Brittany is currently a sophomore at Clark University.

Tip: Schedule structured time for your students to reflect and ask for your support. We have student-led eighth- and 11th-grade (PEP) meetings with a guided agenda that students complete ahead of time, outlining:

  • Their strengths
  • Their areas of growth
  • Their goals moving forward
  • Their insight into what support they want from parents and teaching staff

By having students lead their own meetings, we give them ownership over their learning and responsibility over their actions.

Student Case Study: Encouraging Joe to Apply for Scholarships and Awards

Joe provides another great example of controlled failure at work. When he was a sophomore at University Park, Joe had decent grades, but his attitude and behavior were holding him back. He was eligible for the National Honor Society at the beginning of junior year, but he wasn't admitted due to his lack of civic and social engagement in the UPCS community.

Joe didn't take the news of his rejection well. He was angry and blamed his teachers and staff. When he met with his guidance counselor, teachers, and principal during his student-led PEP meeting, he let them know that he wanted to get inducted into the National Honor Society that year, and they helped him outline a course of action to make that happen.

Joe worked hard to change his attitude and behavior and to become a contributing member of the UPCS community, which included mentoring younger students. Unfortunately, when it came time for National Honor Society candidates to be considered again, Joe's grades had slipped due to the rigorous classes he'd signed up for, and this time he wasn't eligible because of his academic standing.

Once again, Joe was upset that he wasn't a candidate. However, he managed his defeat much better this time. He resolved that he would have an even better senior year and would go on to college.

The UPCS staff was so impressed with Joe's social and civic growth during his senior year that they nominated him for the prestigious POSSE scholarship. He made it through the first three rounds of dynamic interviews before hearing that he hadn't made it to the finals. Rather than sulk in his defeat, Joe congratulated his classmate who did make it, and he set his sights on college.

Joe became a standout citizen at University Park. He volunteered in the community, continued his work as a mentor to younger students, and despite the fact that he didn't actually hold an elected student government position, he became a key figure in his class, helping to organize all major senior events.

Joe was accepted to his first-choice college and got a substantial scholarship. He's now a senior about to graduate with a major in social work and a minor in psychology. His passion is working with kids, and he's currently a residential counselor in a program for at-risk youth. His future goals include becoming a board-certified behavioral analyst. In addition to all of his work activities, Joe can always be counted on to DJ the University Park Pep Rally or stop by to talk to a student who may need to hear from someone who's been in their shoes.

Create a Culture of Reflection

Emphasizing the importance of reflection enables our students to see the opportunity for growth within their failures. At University Park, our students learn that failure is part of the process of success. There's growth within every failure, and to succeed, you just need to get back up.

Tip: Model reflection to your students. Here are seven tips for incorporating reflection into your classroom. By making it a part of your students' everyday lives through assignments and class activities, you'll help to foster their self-awareness and support them in taking responsibility over their own learning.

What structures do you have in place to build your students back up from failure? How has this practice worked for you? Please share in the comments below.

School Snapshot

University Park Campus School

Grades 7-12 | Worcester, MA
252 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$13794 District$14518 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
52% Hispanic
20% Asian
14% White
10% Black
3% Multiracial
1% Native American
Demographic data is from the the 2015-2016 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from University Park Campus School.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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