Failure Syndrome Students
"Failure syndrome" is one of several terms that teachers commonly use (others include "low self-concept," "defeated," and "frustrated") to describe students who approach assignments with very low expectations of success and who tend to give up at early signs of difficulty. Psychologists have described this phenomenon as "learned helplessness," a slightly more technical definition but referring to a similar pattern of behavior. Unlike students of limited ability, who often fail despite their best efforts, failure syndrome students often fail needlessly because they do not invest their best efforts--they begin tasks half-heartedly and simply give up when they encounter difficulty. This Digest delineates the nature of the problem, suggests strategies for coping with failure syndrome students, and discusses how teachers can help.
Who are Failure Syndrome Students?
Some students, especially in the early grades, show failure syndrome tendencies as part of larger patterns of emotional immaturity (for example, low frustration tolerance or avoidance, inhibition, or adult dependency as reactions to stress). They may focus more on dependency-related desires for attention from the teacher than on trying to learn what an academic activity is designed to teach. This pattern may be a defense mechanism exhibited by some children who feel unable to compete with successful siblings, who lack confidence in their own abilities, or who have acquired failure expectations from their parents or teachers. Parents or teachers may communicate low expectations through a variety of direct and indirect means, especially to students who have been assigned labels such as "learning impaired."
Most failure syndrome symptoms, however, develop through social learning mechanisms centered around experiences with failure. Most children begin school with enthusiasm, but over time many find the experience anxiety-provoking and psychologically threatening. Many children find it difficult to have their performance monitored in classrooms where failure carries the danger of public humiliation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some students, especially those who have experienced a continuing history of failure or a recent cycle of failure, begin to believe that they lack the ability to succeed. Eventually such students abandon serious attempts to master tasks and begin to concentrate instead on preserving their self-esteem in their own eyes and their reputations in the eyes of others (Ames, 1987; Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988).
What Strategies Help Failure Syndrome Students?
Failure syndrome students need assistance in regaining self-confidence in their academic abilities and in developing strategies for coping with failure and persisting with problem-solving efforts when they experience difficulties. Many specific suggestions have emerged from research on particular theoretical concepts or treatment approaches. Many of these involve what Ames (1987) has called "cognition retraining." Three of the more prominent approaches to cognition retraining are attribution retraining, efficacy training, and strategy training.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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