ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
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 effortsthey 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
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."
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 &
Help Failure Syndrome Students?
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.
Retraining. This strategy involves bringing about changes in
students tendencies to attribute failure to lack of ability
rather than to a remediable cause, such as insufficient effort or
use of an inappropriate strategy. Typically, attribution retraining
involves exposing students to a planned series of experiences, couched
within an achievement context, in which modeling, socialization,
practice, and feedback are used to teach them to (1) concentrate
on the task at hand rather than worry about failing, (2) cope with
failures by retracing their steps to find their mistake or by analyzing
the problem to find another approach, and (3) attribute their failures
to insufficient effort, lack of information, or use of ineffective
strategies rather than to lack of ability.
Training. These programs also involve exposing students to a
planned set of experiences within an achievement context and providing
them with modeling, instruction, and feedback. However, while attribution
retraining programs were developed specifically for learned helplessness
students and thus focus on teaching constructive response to failure,
efficacy training programs were developed primarily for low achievers
who have become accustomed to failure and have developed generalized
low self-concepts of ability. Consequently, efficacy training helps
students set realistic goals and pursue them with the recognition
that they have the ability needed to reach those goals if they apply
Training. In this approach, modeling and instruction are used
to teach problem-solving strategies and related self-talk that students
need to handle tasks successfully. Strategy training is a component
of good cognitive skills instruction to all students; it is not
primarily a remedial technique. However, it is especially important
for use with frustrated students who have not developed effective
learning and problem-solving strategies on their own, but who can
learn them through modeling and explicit instruction.
noted that these cognitive retraining approaches do not take into
account the social aspects of the classroom and the reward structures
in effect there. Citing findings that an emphasis on competition
and social comparison will increase performance anxiety, Ames recommended
emphasizing private rather than public feedback, phrasing such feedback
in terms of progress beyond the individuals own previous levels
rather than comparisons with classmates, and avoiding such practices
as publicly grading on a curve or posting students achievement
How Can Teachers
found that teachers were unusually confident about their ability
to intervene successfully with failure syndrome students. They tended
to mention similar response strategies regardless of grade level,
location, or effectiveness ratings. A few spoke of providing support
and encouragement to such students without making any demands on
them; others spoke of making demands without providing special support
or assistance; but most suggested a combination of support, encouragement,
and task assistance to shape gradual improvement in work habits.
would make it clear to failure syndrome students that they were
expected to work conscientiously and persistently so as to turn
in work done completely and correctly, but they would also provide
help if needed, reassure them that they would not be given work
that they could not do, monitor their progress and provide any needed
assistance, and reinforce them by praising their successes, calling
attention to their progress, and providing them with opportunities
to display their accomplishments publicly. This special treatment
would be faded gradually as the students gained confidence and began
to work more persistently and independently. These strategies are
in line with what is known about cognitive retraining.
found that highly effective teachers and other teachers generally
implemented similar strategies to help failure syndrome studentssuch
as including encouragement and shaping strategies in their responses
to the student, engaging in supportive behaviors, providing reassurance,
and making personal appeals to the student to improve performance.
But the higher-rated, more-effective teachers appeared to place
greater emphasis on insisting on better effort and seemed to have
greater confidence that the improvements the student could achieve
would be stable over time rather than merely temporary. They tended
to assume that the demands made on students were appropriate (and
therefore that failure syndrome problems stemmed from the students
mistakenly pessimistic attributions and self-efficacy perceptions),
while lower-rated teachers were more likely to fear that their task
demands were too difficult for the student to handle.
Dweck and Elliott
(1983) argued that students who have developed an entity view of
ability (e.g, who see it as fixed and limited) stand to benefit
from direct training designed to shift them to an incremental view
(e.g., seeing ability as something that can be developed through
that encourage incremental rather than entity views of ability include:
- acting more
as resource persons than as judges,
students more on learning processes than on outcomes,
to errors as natural and useful parts of the learning process
rather than as evidence of failure,
effort over ability and personal standards over normative standards
when giving feedback, and
to stimulate achievement efforts through primarily intrinsic rather
than extrinsic motivational strategies.
failure syndrome students approach assignments with very low expectations
of success and tend to give up at early signs of difficulty. Many
teachers use strategies with these students that are in line with
what we know about cognitive retraining strategies such as attribution
training, efficacy training, and strategy training. Teachers
effectiveness can be enhanced, however, if they use modeling to
teach coping strategies, especially techniques for persisting in
the face of frustration or failure.
was adapted from: Brophy, Jere. (1996). Teaching problem students.
New York: Guilford. Adapted with permission of the author.
For More Information
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motivation (pp. 123-148). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
(1995). Elementary teachers perceptions of and reported strategies
for coping with twelve types of problem students. East Lansing,
MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.
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(1998). Motivating students to learn. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Dweck, C., &
Elliott, E. (1983). Achievement motivation. In P. Mussen (Ed.),
Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 4. Socialization, personality,
and social development (pp. 643-691). New York: Wiley.
Mary, & Corno, Lyn. (1988). Success and failure on classroom
tasks: Adaptive learning and classroom teaching. Elementary School
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Barak, & Meister, Carla. (1994). Reciprocal teaching: A review
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Ward, & Perry, Raymond P. (1996). Attributional style, attributional
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was funded (June 1998) by the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. DERR93002007.
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