Talking ‘failure’

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at

Rajat, a class 8 student, has performed consistently well in his class tests and first semester exams. He is obedient and a bit of an over-achiever; good in debates too. You have come to know through other students that he cheats in the exam, when other students ask for answers he gives wrong answers and fights with you, the teacher for marks.

While motivation and need for achievement are important for success, sometimes they can reach a pathological level where the individual becomes unequipped to handle failure. The same can be seen in Rajat’s behaviour where he is cheating, arguing with teachers for marks and giving wrong answers to his classmates on purpose.

It is important to understand why Rajat has such a high need for achievement. Usually this kind of behaviour can be over-compensation for high expectations from parents, sibling rivalry, low self-esteem or just the high need for acceptance. The student may not realize this, but his social relationships and friendships might also get hampered due to this behaviour.

Such students have a difficult time later in life because they have not learnt how to deal with failure or even disappointment. As a teacher, just talking to him would be helpful to understand the reason for his behaviour. You can start by asking a few broad questions: What does performing well through high marks mean to you? What are you afraid of if you are unable to attain these marks? To address the issue of cheating, you must confront Rajat about the means he used. Ask him if he felt it was okay to have cheated; maintain a calm, supportive tone.

Recognize that there may be layers of issues that influence the student’s behaviour, and that a single meeting will not be enough to get to the bottom of it or overcome the problem. You may even find that Rajat denies cheating or blames other students. Repeated talk and guidance about the need to maintain a strong moral compass, work hard and not be burdened by the marks is necessary. You must stress that learning and becoming a better person is the goal of coming to school. Further, you may want to discuss this issue with his parents at an upcoming parent-teacher meeting so that they echo this sentiment at home. Fear of parents’ reactions to poor academic performance is often a cause for lying and cheating. Lastly, a student counsellor will be able to help Rajat because these issues may take some time and persistent work to resolve.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and post doctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counsellor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years experience, currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) apart from carrying on with her consulting work. She is also a registered practitioner of RE-CBT from Ellis Institute, New York. This activity has been conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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