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The Experience of Successive Micro-Failures at School

Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD

Students with diverse learning needs and disabilities often experience successive micro-failures. This concept refers to the experience whereby a student  is repeatedly given feedback that they are not succeeding at school because they are not trying hard enough. Day after day, students hear from teachers that if only the student tried harder, he would find more academic success. The situation whereby a student frequently and constantly puts forth their best effort without success, and is told that “you just need to study more” results in a pattern of successive micro-failures. The result is often a student with low self-esteem and anxiety or depression. Often, these students suffer from unrecognized learning disabilities. Despite extensive effort on the part of the student, they cannot achieve commensurate with the level of effort.


This concept is similar to that described by M. Seligman, who stated that people develop “learned helplessness” and they withdraw, become unmotivated, frustrated and depressed in the face of trying and trying without being able to impact a successful result.[see Seligman, M.E.P. and Peterson, C. (1986).  A learned helplessness perspective on childhood depression: Theory and research.  In M. Rutter, C.E. Izard, and P. Read (Eds.), Depression in Young People: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. New York:  Guilford,  223-249.]

In evaluating and meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, we can reverse the process of successive micro-failures and replace it with success in learning and mastery of new skills. The results in terms of a student's progress and emotional well-being are impressive and it is worth taking the time to fully evaluate the needs of each student to make sure we are providing what they need, rather than blaming them for not trying hard enough.

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