Teaching Kids How to Deal with Failure and Frustration


From my experience doing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) outreach and teaching kids tinkering, I have found that tinkering is a great way to teach kids how to deal with failure and frustration. Tinkering in a failure-positive environment offers kids (and adults) a safe, fun, and practical way to build coping skills by turning their fear of failure into an opportunity to experiment and be creative.

Failing at something can be painful, and the frustration that comes with the fear of failure can be paralyzing.

I am an adult and even I occasionally have trouble knowing how to deal with failure and frustration. Because we teach kids to follow rules and do as they are told, they have a really hard time handling situations when things don’t go as planned. It’s annoying to watch a kid have a meltdown over something that is simple to an adult–like mixing batter in a bowl, spreading peanut butter just right, or getting 2 parts to glue together and stick.

Learning that failing is ok and how to deal with frustration is both important and incredibly hard.

Frustration is a difficult feeling, especially for kids, and hits all of us differently. Through practice you can learn to manage your frustration and turn your failures into opportunities for learning. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

Freeform tinkering is an approach to making (or doing art) where you let the materials guide you to making something open-ended and creative. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and no right or wrong outcome. You just take random materials and stick stuff together as you are inspired. Often things don’t work as planned, and you are forced to iterate and make changes. These changes aren’t seen as failures, but rather experiments and improvements.

This reframing of failure as fun exploration in tinkering naturally creates a failure-positive environment. It is a place where you can fail (make something different from your original idea) safely, and it’s just how things are supposed to be, and no one is there to criticize. The more you tinker, the more you connect risk-taking and failure as avenues for growth and exploration and less of a stressor.

What I love about tinkering is that often you try things, and they just don’t turn out. You look around sheepishly at everyone else and realize it just doesn’t matter. You reassess your plan, get past your first failure, continue just to play, and eventually come up with something better than you ever imagined when you started. This unique process is a great way to teach kids (and adults) how to get past that “I can’t get it to work feeling” and the fear of screwing up.

Tinkering Project
Tinkering, or the act of throwing random stuff together to make a piece of art, within a failure-positive environment, can be a fun way to experience failure as an opportunity to go in a new, more creative direction. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

Building a Failure Positive Environment to Deal with Failure and Frustration

Before we can address tinkering as a solution to frustration, we need to create a safe learning environment that enables students to have fun and learn. We can do that by creating a failure-positive environment.

A failure-positive environment is a place where failure is encouraged (or even celebrated) and used as a learning tool. There’s no yelling or blaming. Instead, you can choose to look at what went wrong (or unexpected), and see if that can guide you in a new direction.

My husband, who volunteer coaches a kids’ cross-country skiing program, likes to say that “if you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” When I teach kids how to use the jeweler’s saw to cut metal, they break the really fine blades of the saw all the time. As soon as they do, I cheer and then help them learn how to install another blade. Breaking blades is just part of the process, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about.

Fallen XC Skiier
Many sports, like cross-country skiing, involve falling as part of the learning process. Getting over the fear of falling, and seeing it as a sign of learning, can be very helpful to new skiers. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

Once you have a failure-positive environment, then you have a place where it is less scary to make mistakes- which can be a great playground for exploring things that are hard or potentially frustrating. This enables kids (and adults) to try things they’ve never considered, without fear.

Consider what you would choose for trying a new skill. Would you pick an adult woodworking class where you get made fun of for screwing up or one where you are supported–you get to laugh at your failures, learn from the mistake, and remake the part more effectively without getting stressed out? I always choose the supportive, failure-positive environment, and suspect in most cases you would too.

Directly Teaching How to Respond to Frustration

When I teach any class, whether it’s tinkering, taking things apart, or something artsier, I always start off with one main question:

What do you do when you get frustrated?

And just to encourage them to actually tell the truth, and not just pander to the answers they think I want to hear (because kids are trained to give you the answers you want to hear), I tell them what I do:

I throw my books across the room and cry in the corner. How about you?

I get the kids to list off some of the things that they do or have seen other kids do.

Then I ask for some good things you can do when you get frustrated. They’ll offer some good ideas like taking a break, going to the bathroom, taking some deep breaths, getting a snack, or chatting with a classmate (which I highly encourage).

I go through this exercise to get kids (or adults) talking about the reality of frustration and how we behave when frustrated. It isn’t easy to deal with failure and frustration. We break things, we make poor decisions, we get angry, we cry, and eventually (ideally) we learn some better coping skills. Getting those skills is tricky and not everyone learns them.

So this is the theory side of building coping skills for frustration. It takes practice and a safe place to try to overcome these feelings to build change. Through tinkering, a freeform art technique, I’ve been able to walk kids through not only the theory of dealing with frustration but give them practice. The benefit of tinkering is that when you fail and when you get frustrated and use a coping mechanism, you actually succeed in ways you could never imagine. But you can’t do this by talking about it. You actually have to do it.

Doing It: Practicing how to Deal with Failure and Frustration Through Tinkering

Tinkering Materials
Tinkering materials can be anything you have around the house, plus a little tape or glue. Much like the joys of playing with other kids’ toys, exchanging random materials with friends can be creatively inspiring. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

Here’s a basic walkthrough of how I teach kids how to deal with frustration and failure while running a tinkering class. Like most things educational, this works best with a group of kids, because of the power of peer learning.  These are things I learned while facilitating tinkering programs at the ReDiscover Center.

  • Get materials

Collect a pile of random stuff, tape, glue, foil, empty containers, popsicle sticks, rocks, whatever. Distribute this stuff to your participants. If they’re grabby, divide materials ahead of time.

  • Cover the rules

    1. Respect– treat yourself and others with respect (Stop calling yourself names! Yes, you!)
    2. Use the tools safely and correctly.
    3. Take a break (and/or have a snack) when you get frustrated.
    4. No weapons. They’re just too easy. Make something creative.
  • Set expectations

We will experiment and make something. It doesn’t have to be anything real. Just play and see what you come up with. Since many children are project driven and will try to make something specific they’ve seen or made before or something they’ve visualized, this will be directly opposite of the direction you just gave. This is fine, and expected. This is what will give them a chance to experience and work through frustration, and maybe even experience the joys of freeform tinkering.

  • Discuss frustration and failure

Ask what kids do when they get frustrated. Ask what some good things are that you can do after you’re frustrated instead. Reinforce that getting up and walking around to see other people’s projects is a GREAT THING! This turns their focus outward and can provide a great source of kid-generated creative ideas.

  • Tinker

Make something from your materials. Encourage them to test it out and change as they go.

  • Observe

When frustration comes up, call it out in a supportive way: “It seems like you’re getting stuck on that, would you like to take a break and look around at how other kids are getting their wood sticks to stay together?” Our goal is to secretly encourage practice in responding to frustration…and teaching teamwork is a huge benefit too.

  • Review

Once the activity is done, have everyone come together to show off what they made. Ask each to discuss what it is, what worked well, and what was frustrating. Then as a group, ask if they ended up making exactly what they originally planned at the beginning. Some may realize that they made something really cool and new. Discuss what kids did to help when they got frustrated. (You may or may not get some good answers, but that’s fine. They still learned through practice, even if they can’t talk about it).

And that’s essentially the magic of using tinkering to teach kids to deal with failure and frustration. First, you create a failure-positive environment where kids can safely play. Then you build, fail, learn (and laugh), and build something different again. And in the end, you’ll have something. But secretly, you’ve built up confidence and learned ways to get past frustration, and to free yourself to figure out what you really need to do to make something work out. Later, you can apply these skills to a world where things are bigger than toilet paper tubes, masking tape, and tacky glue. But until then, why not keep playing and learning?  If you end up loving it, you can even make tinkering part of your mediation practice.


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