A semester doesn’t go by without my having to talk a student through a failure. As a professor and a department chair, I have counseled all kinds of students with all kinds of issues: a failed test or two that has jeopardized their overall grade, a plagiarized paper that has ended their progress in a class and landed them in the dean’s office, or a failed class or classes that have made them question whether or not college is right for them.

They fail, too, for a variety of reasons. Some fall victim to procrastination and find themselves cutting corners in their studying or writing. Others are challenged by a course and try to “handle it themselves,” foregoing tutoring, study groups, or talking with the professor for fear they will look weak or incapable of being successful.

One of the more common concerns these days is talking with their parents about these failures. Some students have told me that they don’t want their parents to know or they don’t feel comfortable talking with them about what is happening. As an educator, I get it: Students want to handle these issues on their own and they don’t want the additional stress of having to deal with their parents’ reactions, especially if they think they can make it better before the semester ends. As a parent, though, I am struck by the worry and stress they deal with because they want to tell you, but feel they can’t tell you. And I haven’t yet had success at encouraging them to keep you updated.

Thus, I am going to tell you what they won’t. And then you can initiate a conversation with them, helping them build better communication skills.

What Your Student Wishes You Knew

  • They don’t want to tell you about the failure. This seems obvious, but they feel as though they should only be telling you the good things that are going on with them. They took your speech seriously about being an adult and they feel that means that they should handle everything themselves.
  • They worry that you will be angry about the failure. This is obvious, too, especially if you have historically reacted with anger about a failed test or a failing grade in a class. Perhaps they remember what you said when you dropped them off: Get good grades and stay out of trouble. They have taken that to heart.
  • They don’t want to disappoint you. They know how much you have supported them thus far, and they don’t want you to be disappointed. It makes them feel bad to think about it.
  • They want you to be proud of them. They see failing at something as not to be proud of, and if they share that with you, you will not be happy with them.

What You Can Do When Your Student Fails or Even Before They Do

  • Remind them that we all fail sometimes. Failures are part of life. While we would all like to think we have never failed at something, we know that is not true. Sometimes students forget that their parents are not–and never have been–perfect.
  • Share your own stories of failure in learning. I share with my students that I failed a few tests in college. This normalizes the experience and allows them to see that I survived and so can they. Failing is part of the learning process and often is the best teacher, if we are willing to own the failure.
  • Encourage them to focus on effort instead of outcome. If they fail a test, ask about their efforts and what they may do differently in terms of studying or taking notes. Guide them to focus on improving their efforts the next time they have a test.
  • Discuss problem-solving strategies. Instead of gnashing your teeth or falling silent, focus on the problem-solving strategies to recover from the failure. Coach your student to seek out necessary information and help; guide them to advocate for themselves. This is probably the most difficult suggestion as we parents often want to jump in to “save the day” for them. Avoid that impulse. They don’t want you to do that anyway.
  • Set up communication expectations for when they do fail. In the event that your student fails, do they know how best to communicate that with you? Share your expectations and be prepared to negotiate. For example, your student may not want to tell you when they earn a low or failing grade on one assignment. However, you may want to request that they talk to you when they have tried a different strategy and they are still having difficulty.

It should go without saying that their reluctance to tell you about the troubles is about a fear of judgment on your part. If you can stay focused on the process of learning from the experience rather than failure itself, you are helping them build important “adulting” skills that will serve them beyond college. And, in case you are still worried, they will make it through college and beyond. Any failure they experience along the way will help them develop resilience and determination.


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