Telling children that it is perfectly normal to sometimes fail at school can actually help them do better academically, according to newly published research.

The results of three experiments by French researchers are not definitive but they are intuitive; kids who don’t feel overwhelming pressure to do well all the time are more likely to feel free to explore, take academic chances and not fall apart if they make a mistake.

The first experiment explains how the three were conducted: 111 sixth-graders were all given very difficult anagram problems. A sub-group of the students who were told that learning can be hard and that they should expect to sometimes fail did better on a test measuring working memory capacity than students in two other groups who did not have the same failure-is-okay discussion. Working memory capacity is said to be a good predictor of reading comprehension, problem solving and other aspects of academic achievement.

The findings are explained in article called “Improving Working Memory Efficiency by Reframing Metacognitive Interpretation of Task Difficulty,” by Frederique Autin and Jean-Claude Croizet of the University of Poitiers and the National Center for Scientific Research in Poitiers, France. The article was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by the American Psychological Association.

In a news release about the article, Autin was quoted as saying: “We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority. By being obsessed with success, 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 incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.”

And Croize was quoted as saying, “People usually believe that academic achievement simply reflects students’ inherent academic ability, which can be difficult to change. But teachers and parents may be able to help students succeed just by changing the way in which the material is presented.”

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