a safe dose of failure

safe dose of failure

Teaching gifted and advanced third graders, I learned that many of these students reached my third grade class having never experienced failure. Straight A’s came easy. Reading came easy. Math was easy. They grasped concepts quickly and never had to take the time to figure something out; they already knew it. (Of course, not all gifted students grasp all concepts easily.)

“What’s the problem?” you might ask. Well, think about how much we learn from our struggles and our failures. We learn to adapt. We learn to deal. We learn to problem solve. Most importantly, we learn to handle adversity.

Young students, however bright they may be, need to experience challenges. I’m not saying you should give your third graders calculus or trigonometry, but I do think it is important to give them activities that might not come easy right away. Give students a healthy dose of failure in a safe environment, where you can be there to encourage them when they need it.

There were several activities that I loved to do in the classroom, often after the big test, activities that made students think and let them struggle a little bit.

Here are some of my favorites:

Lego Kits

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Lego has some fantastic simple machine kits. Students build carousels, cranes, and tractors, and the great thing about them is that in order to make the simple machines work, you have to follow the directions. Step by step. One little brick out of place, and it won’t work. You have to un-build and rebuild. It can be very frustrating for our little perfectionists, but they learn to follow directions, they learn the importance of perseverance, and they feel proud with the final project. To relate it to curriculum, have students tell about the simple machines and the forces involved. Fun hands-on science!


One of the single most frustrating days in my class each year was when we made origami paper cranes. I had an online tutorial that we played on the SmartBoard. Step by step, slow and steady, we worked through the paper cranes. Lots of wadded up paper and starting over at the beginning. I’m pretty sure there were even tears shed, some of them mine. But when those cranes were completed, there was a sense of triumph and pride. It was hard, but it was worth it! Check out Origami Club for lots of fun tutorials.




Great for your spatial learners, tangrams are fun, but they can be frustrating. Laura Candler has an awesome “Tangram Polygon Challenge” in her file cabinet. There are also several great books where different characters are made of tangrams. It is fun to read the story and make the characters as you read.



Did anyone else have to learn to juggle in college? In our PE for Elementary Teachers class, we did. It was not my shining moment as an undergrad. It was frustrating. I would get one ball going, sometimes two, but darn it if that third ball ever cooperated. But you know what made it better? Looking around the gym and seeing everyone else dropping the balls too. And laughing. You can’t help but laugh at yourself when you are failing miserably at something any run of the mill clown can do. Here is a Learn How to Juggle Website. There are also tons of YouTube tutorials. Try practicing with scarves or tissues because they stay in the air a little longer.

Jigsaw Puzzles


I hardly ever see jigsaw puzzles in the classroom any more, but I remember my teachers always having one going in the back of the room. The thing about jigsaw puzzles is they are intimidating at first. A thousand tiny pieces, where do you even start? However, when you get a piece here and a piece there, little by little, it gets done. Trial and error at its best.


When you are planning activities such as these that can be a little frustrating:

*Be sure to give students plenty of time so that everyone can complete the task.

*Be ready to break out your pompoms. Students will need encouragement.

*Try to talk about the frustration that they feel.

*Let them see you get stuck and start over, too.

The lessons learned in these little struggles are lessons that students will take with them once they leave your class.

So go ahead, plan some fun activities and let them experience failure in a small, healthy, and safe amount.


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  • Pam

    Hi Sarah. I completely agree with you. I’ve been working with some gifted 3rd graders in math and we’ve had some tears and cheers. There’s a delicate balance in knowing how much to push and when I needed to leave them (2 in particular) alone to figure out it was OK to not have a correct solution the first time. They’ve come a long way this year. Thanks for a thoughtful post. Pam

  • It is such a hard lesson for them sometimes. Thanks for visiting!

  • Great advice for parenting too!

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