Fail fast. That was a statement I heard repeated over and over again as a teenager. At the time, I thought it was just advice for the group I was working with but now I realise that it’s something we can teach to all of our students and practise ourselves.
From the time I was fourteen until I finished university, I was a volunteer helper at recreational classes for children with intellectual disabilities and/or behavioural problems. The classes involved a bunch of teamwork activities including sports, games and problem solving challenges. Over the weeks, the children would develop their interpersonal skills and learn to manage their emotions in a variety of situations.
One of the lessons that the children were taught was this concept of ‘failing fast’. Basically that meant acknowledging that they had made a mistake or been unsuccessful in their task and quickly getting themselves back into a state where they could continue the activity. This was an important lesson to learn because any time these children would be involved in sports, games, competitions, and looking to the future, something like job applications, they would be confronted with the reality of there being winners and losers.
They had to learn how to cope when they weren’t the one who came out on top.
For many of the children at these classes, small mistakes could be interpreted as much bigger failures than they were: A setback such as a teammate dropping the ball, getting tagged in a Capture the Flag-style game or being unsuccessful in a trial-and-error task had the potential to ‘set off’ these children into a spiral of disappointment, pit of devastation or sometimes a full-blown meltdown. They weren’t able to accept their setbacks and that didn’t serve them well.
To equip these children to better cope with these types of situations, they were taught how to recognise and respond to these “failures”. The key here was to label the feelings that surfaced due to their failure e.g. "I feel frustrated/disappointed/angry/anxious/jealous" and recognise that those feelings were normal. From here they could choose to channel their energy back into the task, making the length of the failure short.
Example: "I was defending the goal and the other team managed to score twice in a row” → “That made me feel really frustrated because I didn’t do my job well enough and it meant that we lost our lead.” → “I want to run out of the room but that won’t help my team. If I fail fast, I can get back into the game and help my team score more goals.”
There weren’t any overnight miracles but over the weeks, terms and years of coaching children through ‘failing fast’ (amongst many other focuses), I did see a huge difference in how students reacted in these situations. The children would still get visibly upset but they learnt to label the feelings, identify that it served them better to get through the feelings faster and understand that getting on with the challenging activity would give them the opportunity to succeed that they otherwise wouldn’t get if they quit.
It was truly amazing to see.
As teachers, I’m sure you can think of many occasions when students or your own children have thrown a hissy fit, had a meltdown or acted out. What if ‘fail fast’ was one of the skills in their kete - their toolkit of strategies they could draw on when they’re experiencing negative emotions?
As always with this kind of thing, introduce the strategy when the children are in a calm Green Brain state so that they’ll be primed to receive and understand it. Emphasise that it’s normal to feel negative emotions but that they have control over how they deal with these when they do come around.
And while we’re on the topic, us as adults can learn from this too. One situation I’ve found ‘fail fast’ invaluable in is when my partner and I have both ended up frustrated about the other person’s actions or comments. That’s the “failure” part. Nothing improves in the situation when we both dig in and don’t talk things through. Unblocking the situation always happens when we fail fast and open up a conversation about what happened and how we’re feeling. Like I said about the kids at the class, this isn’t an overnight miracle but has been a powerful way of thinking that becomes more ingrained and successful over time.
Next time you notice yourself simmering in a pit of frustration, choose to fail fast and recognise how good it feels to start getting yourself up and out of there. Good luck.
Be purposeful teachers
Who are in control
And know they've done enough.