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by Scott Lutostanski

“Risk taker” is a confusing term. When most people think of a risk taker, they conjure up images of Evil Knievel or Shaun White. If asked to give an example of what a risk taker might do, the most common answers might be skydive, quit their job to start a new business, or purchase a motorcycle. So often, we connect risk taking with grandiose, out of the norm events. However, this is not always the case. If we look at risk taking within the context of students, we can formulate everyday examples: trying out for a team, emailing a teacher an awkward question, asking a girl on a date, putting forward one’s very best effort on a really tough exam, or approaching a group of people in a social situation. These are all examples of small risks that students have to face on a daily basis.

So with an image of risk in our minds, let us ponder the question: what would cause a student to take the risk of not doing schoolwork? In my career, this is the most common form of risk that I see. Students avoid the schoolwork they’re assigned and roll the dice with the consequences. This is quite a big risk to take.

According to Neuroscience writer Kayt Sukel (2016), “Scientists and psychologists have learned quite a bit about how different environmental factors may alter one’s natural affinity for risk-taking. Those factors can include your familiarity with a situation, your social group, your emotional response, your stress level, and your response to failure” (p. 129).

For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on the last component of that definition: response to failure. Many students hate failure –  and not in a “Michael Jordan driven to succeed” way but in a “fear of failure leading to paralysis” way. Some students are so terrified by the fear of failure that they choose to put forth no effort instead. There are a few strategies to help students through this paralyzing, work-inhibiting fear.

First, planning is essential. Preparation, time management, and understanding the task at hand can minimize fear of failure and feeling intimidated by a task. It might take over-planning and over-managing to complete a task, even one as simple as a homework assignment, but it will help put the student on the right path.

Next, focus on small victories. If a student is avoiding work, they most likely have a buildup of old assignments. Focus on one assignment per day and don’t become fixated on the 10+ assignments that need to be completed. The lens must be adjusted to focus on small wins.

Third, people want to feel in control as they work towards long term goals. Students who struggle with behavioral or self control issues might have difficulties meeting long term goals of final semester grades or finishing a term project. As deadlines approach and we feel less and less in control, we become less likely to make logical decisions  – completing or catching up on our work-  and become more likely to not follow through -avoiding work until it becomes even more overwhelming and impossible to complete.

Fourth, mistakes are crushing and can cause students to stop working altogether. A shift in mindset is often necessary to help students understand that mistakes are inevitable; they happen to everyone, and they require adjustment and the ability to keep moving forward. In school, a mistake might be finding out that an assignment is more difficult than anticipated, forgetting to do a paper until the night before it’s due, or not studying for a test. These mistakes can often snowball into a bigger disaster than necessary when students feel too discouraged by the relatively minor setback.

Overall, students need to have an understanding of these four strategies and how they relate to their own ability, or inability, to complete work. When the fear of failure takes over, students can become static and unable to take the leap of completing work. Learning about oneself and how to manage negative thoughts and emotions is an important part to getting back to completing schoolwork and avoiding the risk of not doing work.

Sukel, K. (2016). The art of risk: the new science of courage, caution, and chance. Washington, D.C.: Random House Inc.