What to say when kids fail a test

By Amanda Morin

When kids fail tests, they may feel like they’re disappointing the adults in their lives. Kids who learn and think differently may experience failure more than other kids do. So they’re more likely to take it to heart.  And they may also worry about what people will say to them when they fail. 

You might not always say the right thing. Or you may react and say something before thinking about it. But you can always try again. Coming back after you’ve said something you wish you hadn’t said can help kids learn that it’s OK to make mistakes and try again. 

Here are some common first reactions to kids failing tests — and what you can say instead.  

At first, you might say...Instead, try saying...Why

“It looks like you didn’t study hard enough.”

“Is there anything you’d change about how or what you studied?”

Some kids can study for hours and still fail a test. They may study the wrong material. Or they may not be holding on to the information they’re studying. Asking what they’d change helps them reflect, problem-solve, and make plans for next time.

“It looks like you rushed through the test.”

“Did you use all the time you had available to you?”

Kids who are used to failing don’t even bother to try sometimes. Give them space to reflect on whether they tried their best and ran out of time or if they rushed through the test just to finish.

“Didn’t you check your answers?”

“Did you have enough time to think through all the questions and your answers?”

Sometimes kids fail tests because they make careless mistakes. But there can be other reasons. They may not have had enough time to check their work. Or they may not know how to check their answers. 

“You knew it when we practiced. I don’t understand how you could forget everything when you took the test.”

“I’m surprised by this grade. You seemed prepared when we went over the material. What was different when you took the test?”

When you tell kids you know they prepared for a test and understood the material, you’re saying you believe in them. It allows them to realize that failing isn’t always about not knowing the answers. It could be that they were anxious, distracted, or even hungry or tired during the test.

“This wasn’t that hard. I can’t believe you failed.”

“What did you find challenging about the test?”

Being curious about what kids found hard can help them reflect on why they failed. It might be that the format of the test was difficult to understand, not the content.

 

When kids fail tests, it’s important to think about the words you use and the message they’re sending. Kids need to know that they can learn from failure — and that you believe in them. 

Looking for more ways to help kids learn from failure? 

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.