Fear of failure is common in humans, and for some, the fear may be so strong that it has been given a clinical term: atychiphobia, an intense fear of failure1. But for most of us, failure is something we contend with at work and in creative and athletic pursuits, and learning to deal with it is an important tool in developing a growth mindset.

You can show kids how failure is a beginning and not an end | STEMful

Failure in STEM

In STEM settings in particular, fostering the idea of failure as a natural part of the discovery process helps scientists make new hypotheses and pivot when experiments don’t quite turn out the way they expected. For children, learning to embrace failure helps them to think critically and creatively to solve problems and encourages resilience and perseverance. Accidents and perceived failures have led to many innovations that have improved our world.

Successful “Failures” and Happy Accidents

Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin through an accident with an experiment. When he returned from vacation, he found that an uncovered petri dish in his lab had grown mold. He decided to investigate, and what he found led to the discovery by other scientists decades later of penicillin’s role in disease prevention, changing the course of medicine and saving many lives.2

Spencer Silver, the scientist who is credited with inventing the adhesive that would later be used on Post-it notes, failed his way to a successful discovery for his employer. While working in the lab at 3M, Silver had attempted to develop a strong adhesive for the company. What he created instead was a very weak adhesive that didn’t bind tightly to surfaces but stuck to them. Later, another 3M scientist, Art Fry, added the adhesive to paper, creating the precursor to Post-its. Those slips of paper were eventually a huge success for 3M, found in homes and offices all over the world.3

Failures have impacted daily life from medicine to basic office supplies.

Teaching Kids to Embrace Failure

Awareness of fear of failure in undergraduate STEM students has become a topic for researchers who hope to understand the roots and help future scientists overcome it4. But to get them started well before fear of failure affects their performance in higher education, kids can learn the value of happy accidents and failure’s role in the scientific method. With the right approach, fear of failure can be overcome, and kids can learn that even the best-laid plan or carefully plotted experiment may fail and that new discoveries lie just beyond them. (For inspiring books that can help kids see the value of failure and perseverance, check out the list in our April post.) 

When kids are taught to embrace failure, they can learn to be more resilient both in the science lab and outside it, and will be on their way to adopting a growth mindset as they mature. In a broader sense, coping with failure and learning to live with disappointment are crucial skills that children will need in all aspects of their lives. While it’s painful to watch your kids struggle, you can comfort them while helping them learn to solve their own problems. For example, you can empathize with them and teach them self-calming activities such as creating art, listening to music, and going outside when things don’t go their way.5

When failures inevitably occur, rather than focusing on the negative aspects, you can show kids how failure is a beginning and not an end. Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Use failure to learn what works best. When kids struggle, you can help highlight what worked and what didn’t by asking them about their experience. With questions designed to help kids reflect, such as “What can you do differently next time?” they can learn to put what happened in perspective and move beyond disappointment.6

2. Celebrate failure. When you focus on the progress they’ve made instead of what went wrong, kids can learn to associate failure with a positive reaction rather than a negative one. Whether it’s playing a sport and losing, or building something that falls apart, helping to highlight how proud you are of your kids for trying something new can go a long way to help them build confidence and keep going instead of giving up.  

3. Set a good example for how to fail. Modeling failure as a positive experience can help kids learn that failing is OK. If you find yourself challenged by a particular task, talk to your kids about how natural it is to fail when trying new things. By setting a positive example, you can show kids that failure happens to everyone, even grown-ups!7

At STEMful, we believe resilience can be taught by structured STEM activities that engage kids, helping them learn from their perceived mistakes and move beyond obstacles to make science fun and approachable. To get your children started, sign them up for one of our programs to sprout their curiosity today and set them up for success tomorrow.

  1.  “Atychiphobia (Fear of Failure),” Cleveland Clinic, accessed May 22, 2024, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22555-atychiphobia-fear-of-failure.
  2. Robert Gaynes, “The Discovery of Penicillin—New Insights After More Than 75 Years of Clinical Use,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 23, no. 5 (May 2017): 849–53, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5403050/.
  3. Graham Winfrey, “How a Failed Experiment Led to One of the Best-Selling Products of All Time,” Inc., September 19, 2014, https://www.inc.com/graham-winfrey/the-genius-design-elements-that-made-post-its-a-runaway-success.html.
  4. Krystal Nunes et al., “Science Students’ Perspectives on how to Decrease the Stigma of Failure,” FEBS Open Bio (December 6, 2021): https://febs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2211-5463.13345.
  5. Katie Hurley, “How to Help Kids Cope with Disappointment,” PBS Kids, January 16, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-help-kids-cope-with-disappointment. 
  6. Bright Horizons, “Learning from Mistakes: Why We Have to Let Children Fail,” June 15, 2021, https://www.brighthorizons.com/resources/Article/the-importance-of-mistakes-helping-children-learn-from-failure.
  7.  Zahra Ali, “7 Inspirational Ways to Teach Kids Why Failure Is a Great Thing,” Medium, September 6, 2021, https://medium.com/counterarts/7-inspirational-ways-to-teach-kids-why-failure-is-a-great-thing-39515cdc0b70.