Parents often have a visceral reaction to the word “failure” in the context of student learning. This is especially true of parents who pay tuition at a private or independent school. An investment in your child’s education should lead to success, right? And isn’t failure is antithetical to achievement?
You already know the answer to this, even if you struggle with the term “failure.” From J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs, to Albert Einstein and Michael Jordan, cases of failure leading to success are prominent in our society. Tales of hitting rock bottom, getting fired from a job, or missing the game-winning shot are integral to the ultimate success of individuals and companies. Without failure, what would success look like? What would its value be? What lessons would be missed along the way?
Trial and Error: What the Research Tells Us
Do you remember being scolded as a child for “guessing” at an answer? Decades ago, students were chastised for taking educational guesses or fumbling for an answer. At the time, we didn’t have readily accessible brain research that is available today. A 2018 study by Andrée-Ann Cyr and Nicole D. Anderson posits that “errors benefit memory to the extent that they overlap semantically with targets.” At the heart of this study is the comparison between rote memorization—when students are given material to remember—and the requirement of students to guess answers on their own. Statistics showed that students were less likely to remember information they were given after a 10-minute break than they were when they played an active role in the guesswork. In short, trial and error actually helps students recall information, even if their initial answer was incorrect.
The Risk of Rejecting ‘Failure’
We all make mistakes. Usually, it doesn’t make us feel great. As adults, we try to rebound quickly and move on, and, if we’re lucky, we see the value in learning lessons through failure. For a child, however, making mistakes in a classroom or in front of peers can have a damaging effect on confidence and self-worth. It is important to strip away the negative connotation with the term “failure” and, instead, encourage students to view it as a positive thing. By embracing failure, we are allowing children to learn in better conditions, which will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes.
The Importance of Failure at Fessenden
At Fessenden, we often talk about the importance of failure, and even the gift of failure, as it relates to student learning outcomes. We believe it is critical for parents to understand how important failure is for their children to make mistakes. Messages that are delivered in the classrooms are most effective when emphasized at home; if teachers are promoting healthy risk-taking that may just lead to failure, but could also lead to success, it works best if the message is consistent. We are careful to promote positive classroom environments throughout the school, and being okay with failure is essential to confidence-building and creating an atmosphere where students feel safe and excited about taking risks.
You Tell Us
What is your stance on the word “failure”? Do you think it has a place in schools?
When you imagine the ideal classroom environment for your preschooler, it probably looks like a colorful, orderly space where students are engaged, actively participating, and genuinely excited to learn. But what happens in a student-directed environment that promotes choice? Don’t conjure up images of “Kindergarten Cop” where students are screaming and running amok. Student-focused education actually looks a lot like your ideal scenario. Research indicates that children who have the freedom of choice in their learning tend to make better choices and benefit from a deeper experience.
What Is Student-Centered Learning?
Student-centered learning can mean different things to different people, but it almost always puts the child at the center of the educational process. In other words, students are empowered to collaborate, make choices, and be active participants in their educational processes. At Fessenden, we believe that students learn best when they are inspired by the confidence that comes with making a good choice. This is true at each grade level at Fessenden, and we have seen particularly positive results in inspiring boys to become avid readers through choice.
Student-centered environments also allow teachers to meet children where they are. With a recognition that each child (and adult, for that matter) learns differently, we can identify new and different ways to reach students, and to ensure that they continue to grow and learn in ways that work best for them.
Giving Students a Chance to Lead
Providing students with leadership opportunities is closely connected to this approach toward teaching and learning. By empowering preschool-aged children to take on these important roles, students not only develop the capacity to lead, but they also see themselves as essential members of the community. They gain confidence in themselves, and foster a strong sense of place. One of the ways we build confidence in our students is giving our littlest learners big jobs. For example, one role is the “class comforter,” where a boy’s job is to be gentle and to take care of others.
A Balance of Structure and Independence
There are many connotations that come with the term “student-centered,” and we are mindful that everything is good in moderation. And so, Fessenden teachers are always sure to strike a balance between structure and independence. And, independence is continually framed in the context of being a good friend and an active learner, and having honesty, compassion, and respect for all people and things.
You tell us.
Is it a scary concept to empower your child to make choices at such a young age? What types of things do you do at home to encourage positive decision-making?
The middle school years mark an important transition for young boys. Their educational journeys will undergo big changes as they move from a contained classroom setting with a single teacher to an experience in which they may see four or five different teachers per day. However, this is not the only change. Their adolescent brains will begin a process of maturation that will last well into their mid- to late-twenties.
Among the many areas of growth that middle school brains will experience, perhaps the most important is the onboarding of the suite of mental processes collectively known as “executive functions.” Executive Functions (EF) is an umbrella term used to describe various neurologically-based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child notes that executive function skills “are essential for school achievement, for the preparation and adaptability of our future workforce, and for avoiding a wide range of population health problems.”
While it will take years for these processes to fully mature, it is vital that during this developmental period middle school boys are provided with opportunities to practice and hone their budding neurological skills. One way Fessenden does this is to engage students in service-learning projects, which often enable children to address real-world issues and build real-world skills.
Here are a few ways community service can improve executive functioning:
The term “working memory” is used to describe a person’s ability to retain information in order to complete a task or activity. This is done through a combination of auditory and visual-spatial memory exercises. Multiple times each year, Fessenden students travel to areas in the local community to perform various community service projects, and the ability to pay attention, follow instructions, and retain information is crucial. Whether children are working on a nearby farm, cleaning up one of the many New England beaches, or volunteering at a home for the elderly, they must practice their working memory and remain focused on the task at hand. It can be tempting to disengage in a classroom setting, however, the active and real-world nature of community service ensures students remain connected.
When students engage in a community service experience, it is often done in an authentic setting far removed from the controlled nature of the classroom. This means that students are not able to rely on routine to know what might come next. It is here that another important EF area comes into play: cognitive flexibility. As Drs. Dajani and Uddin note in their paper on demystifying this concept, “Cognitive flexibility enables an individual to work efficiently to disengage from a previous task, reconfigure a new response set, and implement this new response set to the task at hand.” For example, when volunteering at a food bank a student might be required to complete a range of tasks from sorting cans to packing boxes. Cognitive flexibility allows the child to adapt to each one of these new tasks without getting stuck. As the world becomes more connected and the need to multitask grows, cognitive flexibility is an important skill set to have.
The ability to connect to what a person thinks and knows is emotional control, an essential executive functioning skill. A lack of emotional control might cause a child to be incapable of responding to triggers or stressful situations in productive or appropriate ways. The ability to think, remember, problem-solve, and express control all come into play. At Fessenden, middle school boys participate in a project founded by ThinkGive, a nonprofit organization focused on introducing young people to the value of giving. The program encourages boys to give non-material gifts—of time, kind words, or their help—to friends, family, and peers. Students must embrace daily challenges and record reflections in their digital journals reflections, which ultimately helps them to better understand the power of selflessness. Because this requires a daily check-in, the ability to practice empathy and to have mental reminders helps students improve their emotional control.
At Fessenden, community service is a cornerstone of the middle school program. During these formative years, it is especially critical for children to be provided with opportunities to venture into the community and serve others. When students begin to see the positive impact that they are making through their actions, they feel rewarded, and this helps to reinforce their developing executive functioning skills.
You tell us.
Have you seen any creative ways to help students improve executive functioning?
At Fessenden, we believe students benefit in myriad ways from studying a second (or third) language. In fact, you can often find our youngest learners exploring Spanish in our Pre-K and Kindergarten classes. Throughout the year, children in our earliest grades expand their cultural awareness, reinforce fundamentals (such as math and literacy), and have fun along the way. There are a number of research-supported ways that learning a second language in preschool improves the way students think.
The Best Age to Learn a Second Language
If you’re a parent, you know that young children, especially around the ages of three and four, are like sponges. They absorb everything you say and do, and they often emulate your language and behavior (sometimes to your embarrassment or dismay). It’s no secret that preschool-aged students are building a foundation for learning that will serve them later in life. Given their natural ability to acquire information, it is a perfect time to learn a second language. You’re probably familiar with the claim that the older you get, the harder it becomes to learn a different language. Perhaps you’ve even experienced this firsthand. Researchers support this theory and believe that the optimal age for a person to master language acquisition skills is around three or four.
The Improvement of Executive Function
In a 2004 study, bilingual and monolingual students were asked to participate in a computer-based sorting and matching game involving colored blocks with varying shapes. Students who spoke a second language were able to perform the task at a faster pace than those who spoke one language. Similar studies have shown a marked difference in students who are bilingual—they are generally better at multitasking and retaining information. Studies at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) support this sentiment, arguing that children who learn a second language can maintain focus when faced with distractions better than children who know only one language.
Increased Cognitive Ability
There are many brain-based advantages to learning a language at age three or four. Young children who are immersed in new languages display enhanced problem-solving skills, increased creativity, and show a hunger for seeking new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. And, as they grow older, they often become more easily connected to a global society in which languages and cultures intersect.
What Does Learning a Second Language Look Like in Pre-K and Kindergarten?
We know that young children learn by listening, seeing, imitating, and practicing. In addition to our core academic program, we offer “specials,” which are electives taught by experts in each subject. Fessenden’s Spanish teachers utilize a multitude of approaches when it comes to educating our youngest students, including oral presentations, pictures, songs, games, and group and individual activities. We are sure to incorporate movement—which can be extremely beneficial for boys—and we always strive to make things fun. Learning a new language in Pre-K and Kindergarten sets the foundation for a child’s elementary and middle school years at Fessenden, where they will have the choice of studying Spanish, or Latin.
You tell us.
Are you bilingual? Is learning a second language something you’d like to prioritize for your preschool-aged child?
This is part 3 of a three-part series.
In parts one and two of this three-part series, we addressed common challenges and fears that can be associated with parenting a middle school boy. We assured you that feeling uncomfortable and uncertain about your parenting techniques is normal, and that it’s healthy and developmentally appropriate for your son to distance himself from you during this time, however difficult it may feel.
We also examined the role that “acceptance” plays in an adolescent boy’s life, and the instinctual desire to “belong” to a group. Today we look at “C” of the “ABCs of Middle School Boys,” as outlined by Fessenden’s School Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Goldberg.
“C” is for Change
Change is inevitable. Whether you’re an infant, a child, or an adult, we constantly experience change in varying degrees. Sometimes change can be welcome, but it can often cause growing pains and require a great deal of patience and determination. Middle school boys experience change on multiple levels; while they are growing physically and becoming bigger and stronger, they are also undergoing intellectual and cognitive development that can manifest in various ways.
Here are a few considerations related to change that will help you in your journey of parenting a middle school boy:
According to Dr. Jonathan Goldberg, the average onset of puberty for a North American male is 11.5. During this time, “boys are starting to experience all of the joys of pubescence. They’re really looking forward to it, but it’s scary—especially if it isn’t happening.” You might notice that your middle school boy has a hyperextended idea of masculinity, just to name one example. Stroll through a toy store and you will see that children want to relate to exaggerated images, which is why characters like “The Rock” can be so appealing to them. Dr. Jonathan Goldberg says, “larger than life, hulking people are who they often want to be, so they may gravitate toward things that are associated with male stereotypes, like tackle football, gaming, and even music.”
He adds that there is great diversity for boys when it comes to puberty. While some children may grow a foot during their middle school years, others may grow a few inches. It is not uncommon to observe social-emotional hurdles in children who are slower to develop physically. Regardless of the pace at which your son develops, this is an important time to broach a conversation about puberty and changes, according to Dr. Jonathan Goldberg. He acknowledges that it can be an awkward discussion, but emphasizes that it is a discussion that needs to be had. “If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to have that conversation because if your child isn’t getting information from you, he’s getting it from his friends and the internet.” Dr. Goldberg adds that having this discussion could be a wonderful way to validate a child’s maturity and to signify that he is coming into his own.
Middle school boys are developing rapidly. Their neurons are firing, and transmitters are flowing. The Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget talks about moving from “concrete and constricted” thinking to the “formal operational stage,” which typifies a child’s transition into adulthood. Boys start to see the world in different shades and colors, which crosses over into the academic world—reading comprehension increases, verbal skills improve, and more sophisticated conversations are shared.
According to Dr. Goldberg, this is a double-edged sword. To be able to think abstractly is to be able to think about one’s self abstractly, and that can lead to becoming self-conscious. He shares, “Self-awareness, self-consciousness, and metacognition—thinking about what one is thinking about—can make boys become very egocentric with a social edge.”
Boys at this age are beginning to develop stronger executive functioning skills, which enable them to self-regulate their behavior, pay attention, retain information, and self-monitor. At this age, students can concentrate for longer periods of time and dive into the process of learning. With this progress often comes a desire for them to want to develop faster. Unfortunately, boys don’t fully develop until they are 22. They’re still going to forget things at home and they’ll be disorganized, but it’s important to enable them to learn from their mistakes, according to Dr. Goldberg. He states, “Boys learn so much more from natural consequences. If he forgets his skates at home, don’t drive them to school, even though that’s what you want to do as a parent. It’s okay to let him fail a little bit.”
Middle school boys often think that they are unique snowflakes and that they are on stage at all times. This heightened sense of vulnerability often comes with increased anxiety and self- consciousness, but it’s all part of developing an identity. What are some things you’ve noticed in your middle school boy?
In most middle and high schools, elective courses are offered to students to supplement core classes (English, math, science, history). You may even remember electives as your favorite subjects in school. Did you master the art of photography in a dark room? Perhaps you developed culinary techniques in home economics?
Research suggests that it is important to introduce electives at an early age, which is why Fessenden’s Pre-K and Kindergarten programs offer courses called “specials” to our youngest students. We place an emphasis on core classes—which are taught by homeroom teachers and include literacy, numeracy, and social studies. But we also acknowledge the importance of supplementary classes that extend beyond traditional academic offerings. Throughout the year, children are introduced to music, art, science, physical education, Spanish, and library/technology. Not only do students receive hands-on experience in these areas, they receive instruction from experts in each field.
How Do Specials Come Into Play on an Average Day?
The typical Pre-K day begins with playground time and morning meeting, where we settle in with a song and focus on having a positive day. Boys then transition to classroom activities that mix core classes with specials and a healthy dose of movement and play. Throughout the day we, of course, build in ample time for rest, snacks and lunch, and recess.
We find that specials complement and enhance core subject areas. These classes offer students an opportunity to become even more engaged in learning and to go beyond the daily classroom experience. Our students travel to our arts center, for example, which can have multitudinous cognitive benefits, including movement, confidence building, and feeling like a part of the larger Fessenden community.
What Specials Are Offered at Fessenden?
Students are introduced to various materials and are encouraged to explore their creativity through a series of guided art sessions. Matching their energy and developmental levels, students take part in collaborative and individual projects which focus primarily on the process. As their skills progress, they practice a variety of techniques and styles and learn about different genres and artists.
Each grade in the Lower School has an opportunity to perform on stage. Boys enjoy singing, acting, and, in the upper two grades, playing instruments. Learning music by ear initially helps students understand and read music.
At Fessenden, we embrace “science by doing,” a philosophy that aims to capture young boys’ innate curiosity. We encourage them to ask questions and provide them with opportunities for hands-on inquiry.
Children learn Spanish, expand cultural awareness, reinforce grade-level fundamentals such as math and literacy, and have fun at the same time. The program develops listening and speaking skills through oral presentations, pictures, songs, games, and group and individual activities.
Learning how to use the library and proficiently accessing information through books and the Internet are key skills for students. We match resources to units of study in the classroom and select reading books based on genre focus, reading level, and interest.
The primary goal of physical education at Fessenden is to develop boys’ knowledge, skills, and confidence to help them enjoy a lifetime of healthful physical activity. Students learn individual skills and team play through group activities and games, and develop good sportsmanship through teaching that focuses on how to be gracious regardless of game outcome.
Educational technology is integrated throughout the curriculum. Students learn how to navigate various devices and software applications and apply what they learn to their work in the classroom and beyond. Our goal is to help students understand how to utilize technology appropriately as way to augment learning.
You tell us.
What were some of your favorite specials or electives as a child? What types of specials have your child been most excited to explore?