Facing disappointment

Dealing with disappointment is a key life skill all children must develop. Alastair Speers, Headmaster of Sandroyd, looks at why parents must step back and try not to always shield their children from failure.

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Learning to deal with disappointment is one of those crucial life skills that we all have to pick up eventually, and the younger we can allow children to gain the skills and habits to overcome setbacks, the better equipped the child will be to bounce back from an upset. This skill is often referred to as resilience; something we are all keen for our children to develop.

At my own school, like prep schools across the country, we pride ourselves on the exceptionally happy environment that we provide, creating a traditional and idyllic childhood removed from many of the unnecessary stresses of the modern world. However, we do believe that experiencing disappointment in school life acts as a very important learning tool. This can result in interesting challenges for teachers and parents as it often involves children suffering from an element of self-doubt, showing visible upset and sometimes anger. One could say that this goes against the happy environment we are so proud of creating, but providing opportunities for children to be disappointed is a key aspect of any prep school education.

Being happy is something that naturally we all desire for our children and seeing children sad about something they are passionate about can pull on our emotional heartstrings, causing many parents to try and shield children from further disappointment. Sometimes we even go so far as to artificially protect our children from disappointment for fear of seeing them upset – by removing them from competitive situations or making excuses of unfairness or bias.

Being upset is a normal emotion which happens throughout our whole life. If we are removing or reducing this emotion in our children, we are not allowing them to develop the tools to deal with being upset, resulting in knock-on repercussions when our children become young adults and are trying to deal with challenging issues that cannot be controlled. When children move on to senior school, they will potentially be faced with a wide range of uncontrollable issues ranging from peer pressure to acne; or from friendship issues to not getting into their university of choice.

"Being upset is a normal emotion which happens throughout our whole life. If we are removing or reducing this emotion in our children, we are not allowing them to develop the tools to deal with being upset, resulting in knock-on repercussions when our children become young adults..."

Parents can find it challenging to see their children disappointed about team selection, or miss out on a prefect appointment: the captaincy of a team or gaining the part they worked so hard to get in the school play. In these instances, for the disappointment to be used effectively to develop resilience, children need to see a united front between their parents and the school, with the two working together and delivering the same message. Children need to understand why they missed out and what they can and cannot control. Genuine disappointments should be celebrated as one of the most important learning opportunities. Most prep schools offer a plethora of extra-curricular activities that also provide many of these opportunities. They don't need to be engineered, they happen naturally.

Obviously, schools must balance disappointment with keeping children's self-esteem high, allowing their confidence to grow. Life should never be about disappointment alone and indeed the correct balance requires elation and celebration of success in order to ensure children's confidence is not adversely knocked. The successes may of course be in different areas of school life. Young children quickly become aware when they are shielded from disappointment, and when handled incorrectly, this can affect their self-esteem and self-worth. We ensure that our staff know the children and have a good understanding of each child's strengths and weaknesses. It is important that disappointments are genuine, but there should always be the ability to reduce disappointment accordingly, depending on each individual's situation.

A child's age will affect the appropriate level of disappointment that is beneficial. In the EYFS nursery setting, children shouldn't always get to play with the toy they want, as often this will be a toy that another child is playing with. It is obviously not appropriate at this age to expect a child to understand why they cannot always have whatever they desire. EYFS staff are experts at quickly diverting attention and finding something else for the disappointed child.

As a child matures into Reception class and Year 1, board games provide an excellent way for children to start to experience and deal with disappointment. A great example of this is Snakes and Ladders which is a particularly frustrating game, entirely based on luck. It is very irritating sliding down a snake having previously been ahead of the pack! If a child is exposed to these disappointments and can start to learn to deal with uncontrollable upsets, then they can learn the tools to deal with more significant disappointments as they mature. Picture puzzles, which are easy to differentiate at a young age are also a great way to help EYFS children to develop their resilience. Sport, choirs, drama and plenty of other extra-curricular activities allow these disappointments to continue as children rise through the school.

"Genuine disappointments should be celebrated as one of the most important learning opportunities. Most prep schools offer a plethora of extra-curricular activities that also provide many of these opportunities. They don't need to be engineered, they happen naturally."

If I asked a group of adults to play a game of Snakes and Ladders, I would find it a challenge to get an eager number of participants around the kitchen table with the dice at the ready. As adults, we don't like getting ourselves into situations that we cannot control. Hence most of the sports and games we play recreationally are based on an element of skill and control. This conflict can cause difficulties, as, ultimately, adults like to control outcomes and we tend to shy away from challenges that we cannot control.

Prep schools are exceptional at preparing children for senior schools and life after education. We know that the emotional intelligence and the 'soft skills' that our future workforce requires are developed and nurtured through a sensible balance of disappointment, success, elation and sometimes failure. Life is not always fair and children at prep school age tend to deal with disappointment very well if they are provided with the correct support, encouragement and advice.

All the extra-curricular activities offered at prep schools provide so many opportunities for children to get things wrong and to be naturally disappointed. Within the correct context, these opportunities should be celebrated and used as a learning opportunity to increase every child's resilience. Parental interference can have the very opposite effect and will set a child up for some challenging times in their teens, when parents find they have less and less control. The earlier that children develop the key life skill of resilience, the more they can build on this as they rise through their teens. This can only be done with regular upsets and dips, which they are supported through in a nurturing manner.

Ultimately, childhood should be full of happiness, but that desire for happiness should not completely shield children from disappointment – dealing with disappointment is an essential life skill.

Alastair Speers Photo

Alastair Speers is Headmaster of Sandroyd School, a coeducational day and boarding school for children aged 2 to 13 years. Set in an idyllic rural location on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, there's always time in the day for pupils to play and enjoy their childhood.

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