Back to School After Experiencing Failure

Back to School After Experiencing Failure

We need to support students to help interrupt the cycle of failure.

September is an incredible time to be a school counselor. The month seems to fly by as we work at a frenetic pace to review and adjust students' academic programs, assist students who are transitioning into a new school, and support students and families as they acclimate to a new school year. For high school counselors, we have the added responsibilities related to college admissions planning for incoming seniors. We sometimes get so bogged down with the volume of work that we often neglect the students who most need our support and encouragement: the children and adolescents who experienced failure in the previous year.

First Day Back

It must be very difficult to walk into a place where you have experienced failure. On the first day of school, our students return to find that little has changed. The building still looks the same; the faces of the teachers and administrators haven't changed much; methods of instruction haven't changed dramatically; the social stratification remains firmly in place; the code of conduct, the schedule, the routines— pretty much all the same. I imagine that it would be difficult for a child or an adolescent (or anyone for that matter) to feel inspired upon returning to an environment in which they had recently failed. And the expectation is that they will not fail again. I can hear the adults in these students' lives demanding, "This year, you have to do better." For these students, walking back into school in September is likely to make them feel anxious, frustrated and even marginalized.

As educators, we often expect students who have been unsuccessful to bounce back, to take advantage of a clean slate. We give them a pat on the back and say, "Go get 'em!" But clearly we don't do enough to interrupt the cycle of failure for these students. We spend little time talking to them about their experience of school and building trusting relationships that serve as a source of support and guidance. A student's sense of belonging is critical to engagement in learning, and belonging is to a great degree related to relationship. Therefore, if we want a student who has experienced failure to experience belonging and to engage in the learning process, we need to listen to him. Too often, we try the quick fix: "You need to go to extra help and get better organized." Or we go so far as to let the student sink or swim, believing that it's his responsibility to succeed.

Relationship Building

Building respectful, open relationships with students who struggle must be the priority for counselors and administrators. Providing these children and adolescents with a forum to talk about their experiences in school is the first step to connecting with them. Often we employ progressive instructional techniques and methods without first establishing the lines of communication. It didn't surprise me that a recent study out of Columbia University found a positive correlation between the number of online courses a student takes and the likelihood that he or she will drop out—that is, the more online courses she takes, the more likely she will drop out. That makes sense to me because relationships are the foundation, if not the essence, of education.

Counselors, even in the busy month of September, need to reach out to their students, especially those who experienced failure in previous years. Counselors need to open up the conversation. Yes, all of our work is important and needs to get done. But welcoming our struggling students back and providing them with a safe place to share their hopes and fears is quite possibly the most meaningful work we can do as counselors.

Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.


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