Most people know, at least in theory, that failing is simply part of learning. You fall off the horse, you get back on. But for many people, failing is a scary prospect, and the fear of failure can actually inhibit their efforts.

This is especially true for younger people with less life experience, who may tend to feel that failing a test at school is the end of the world. How can they be helped to learn that, in reality, many successful people fail at one point or another?

To see if making failure less scary for kids would help them achieve, a new study had sixth graders try to solve math problems that were too difficult for them. Afterwards, half of the kids were told that the problems were very difficult and that failure is common. The other half was asked how they tried to solve the problems.

'By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail; so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. '

The children were then given a test of working memory, which is known to predict academic performance: the group who’d been told it was “OK” to fail did much better on the tests than the kids who were not supported in this way.

In another part of the experiment, an additional group of kids were given easily solvable problems instead of too-difficult ones. When it came to the working memory test, the children who were given the difficult problems, but were told that failure was common, actually did better than the kids with the easier tests.

A final portion of the experiment tested kids’ reading comprehension and confidence levels. Those who were told that failure is common did better on these tests as well and said they felt more confident overall.

Lead author Frederique Autin suggests that too much pressure is being placed on achievement, which exaggerates the fear of failure. “By being obsessed with success,” Autin said in a news release, “students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetencethat in turn disrupts learning.”

Creating environments in which students are less afraid to fail could bolster their confidence, and help them succeed. Autin says that, “Teachers and parents may be able to help students succeed just by changing the way in which the material is presented." Hopefully educators will take note of this study and others like it as they are done. Providing kids with a better sense of security in school could have a lot of positive effects, both in school and outside it.

The study was carried out by a team at the Université de Poitiers and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in Poitiers, France, and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.