Nurturing Your Child’s Cycle of Success

Children strongly believe what they tell themselves. As a result, if they believe they can do something, they will be happy and willing to try it and to persevere through any challenges. One of the most important things parents and educators can do for children is to help begin their self-fulfilling cycle of success.

Successful experiences fuel a child's confidence and reinforce a belief that he is capable of success.

Launching a self-fulfilling cycle of success

Children who feel successful and capable because of past successes tell themselves, “I am smart. I am good at being a student.” This belief, in and of itself, promotes the child’s willingness to attempt new challenges and persevere through them – which in turn increases the likelihood of success. In this way, past successes support the expectation of continued success which leads to greater perseverance and greater opportunities for successful outcomes. When this happens, a positive, lasting and self-fulfilling cycle of success is born!

Self-fulfilling cycle of success: successful experience, expectation of success, welcome current challenges” with, greater perseverance, successful experience

Launching a self-fulfilling cycle of failure

Unfortunately, children can also have negative views of themselves and their abilities. When this happens, a child tells himself, “I am not smart. I am not good at being a student.” This belief, in and of itself, diminishes a child’s willingness to try new activities as he preemptively anticipates that he will fail.

Unsuccessful experiences fuel a child's belief that he is incapable of success.

For example, during the first few weeks of school a few years ago, I noticed that Jackson, a bright and socially confident little boy, routinely did not finish his math worksheets, while all other children in the class easily finished one (and sometimes two) worksheets each day. His papers also frequently had answers written in, crossed out, and then written in again.

On one occasion, I sat with Jackson at his table while he worked, hoping to identify the source of his hesitancy. After watching him cross out the same answer a second time, he pushed the sheet away and said, “I’m just not good at math.” When I called his parents that night to share my observations and ask if they had any ideas why he was tentative in this area (given he confidently excelled in nearly all other areas in the classroom), his parents immediately pinpointed the source of the problem.

Over the summer, Jackson and his older brother played Hi Ho Cherry-O, a basic “count to 10” style math game. In gloating over his victory, Jackson’s brother taunted him, saying “You stink at math. You’re the worst math person I’ve ever seen.” Unfortunately, Jackson believed his brother’s assessment of his math abilities and began a self-fulfilling cycle of failure, as he started doubting his abilities.

Self-fulfilling cycle of failure: unsuccessful experience, expectation or fear of failure, greater hesitancy and self doubt, diminished perseverance, unsuccessful experience

Failure is inevitable, but plan for it

Even a confident and successful child will fail; many times, most likely. With the right response, parents can help their children view minor setbacks as just that - minor. Confidence-building appropriate praise such as, “I am so proud of you for trying that, it was really challenging” or, “I am so impressed you almost did it on your first try, now try again!” can help deflect your child’s attention away from the end result of failure and towards the more important aspect of his positive efforts. For example, if Jackson’s parents had given him some confidence-building praise following his defeat, focusing on the many times during the game he correctly added or subtracted cherries in his bucket, Jackson may not have lost so much confidence in his math abilities.

Try this at home

Particularly for young children, self-confidence can be fleeting. Reminders of past success can go a long way to help children maintain their self-confidence in times of stress or failure.

Create an “I Did It!” awards wall - In preparation for beginning your child’s “I Did It!” wall, create a printable “award.” Below is what mine looks like, although they can take any form (and can accommodate any level of artistic ability). Feel free to download mine as a PDF.

'I Did It!' Award

Whenever one of my grandsons comes to visit, I print out several full-color copies of the blank award and put them on the art table where we typically work on projects together. As he begins a new and noteworthy challenge for the first time (such as using scissors correctly, writing all the letters in his first name, or skipping using the correct “step, hop, step, hop” rhythm) I comment on the progress he is making and how proud I am that he’s trying something new. When he finally masters the skill or finishes the activity, he proudly proclaims, “I did it!” After uttering the magic words, I write in the name of the accomplishment on an “I Did It!” award and present it to him. Sometimes he likes to decorate the award at his art table with drawings or stickers before taping it to the refrigerator. Other days, he’s so eager to add the award to his collection that I barely have time to write in the name of the accomplishment before he runs to the kitchen to select where, exactly, on the refrigerator the newest award should go.

Creating an “I Did It!” wall can serve a few important purposes:

  • Each individual award marks and celebrates a specific and special accomplishment. By celebrating these noteworthy accomplishments, you affirm for your child that you noticed and valued his hard work and perseverance.
  • Many children, whether they are in daycare, with a babysitter, or working at home outside of your direct attention, may accomplish certain activities when a parent is not around. By having the routine of creating “I Did It!” awards, you encourage your child to share with you successes he may have had that you would not otherwise know about. Giving your child an opportunity to share his accomplishment with you (and maybe the time to demonstrate it again for you) gives him the opportunity to reflect on his success and build important self-confidence. Also, it gives you the opportunity to share your excitement about your child’s success with him.
  • An “I Did It!” wall is a concrete reminder of your child’s numerous successes. As the awards accumulate and the size of the “I Did It!” wall grows, your child can visually track his growing list of successes. Then, when your child is struggling with a new activity, he can look at the wall and “re-live” many of his past successes. While looking at the wall together, consider comments such as, “There’s your award for getting dressed by yourself! Don’t you remember how hard you had to work that first time? Those socks were so tricky to get on and the zipper on your jeans kept getting stuck. But you tried and tried and never gave up and now it’s so easy for you. I’m sure with more practice you’ll figure out how to tie your shoes also.” Reminders of his past success will increase his confidence and help him continue on the self-fulfilling cycle of success.

What can you share with other parents?

How do you handle your child’s failures? What encouraging and positive ways have you found to redirect your child away from his failure? How do you celebrate your child’s successes? How does your child celebrate his own successes?

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