Learning to Lose

A 4 Step Action Plan to help a child be OK with losing and increase their frustration tolerance.


#1 Optimize the environment

Spend some time thinking about under what circumstances your students have the hardest time. What types of games frustrate them most and with which ones are they most successful. Also think about with whom they display negative behavior and which environments cause the most stress when playing games.

Based on the above, you can do your best to create an optimal environment to make losing less stressful, hence reducing the odds of your students escalating. Quick games are typically the best to start with for a few reasons. The time investment is lower so they feel like they have less at stake. 


A loss at a 10-minute game at Sorry is easier to handle than a marathon Monopoly session. 


Additionally, multiple games can be played in a short time, providing more opportunities to have a balanced ratio of winning and losing. The ideal number of players depends on your learners. On one hand, more people involved in the game could make them feel more pressured. On the other hand, if you play with 5 people and only one wins, the impact of losing is diffused among the other 4 players.


#2 Look for Red Flags

Know the antecedents to frustration and signs that the game is going south. Red face, heavy sighs, tight jaw... you know them. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If you see the signs, start talking about a preferred topic to lighten the mood again. Keep the atmosphere upbeat.

If you are playing 1:1 with just one student it's perfectly fine to let your student win sometimes. Many will say that in real life no one lets you win but that is missing the point. The goal here is to foster a positive relationship with playing games, which sometimes includes losing. Kids need a balance of both winning and losing. 


If a child hardly ever experiences winning, they will simply give up and avoid playing in general. 


Once your child gets the hang of losing once in a while, increase the number of times they lose and make sure to deliver praise for handling it without any negative behavior.


#3 Model what you want to see


Authentically model gracious losing. Sometimes well-intentioned adults model how to handle losing by saying something like, "Oh darn! Oh well!" in a singsong voice that just comes off as fake. Try to model how the child genuinely feels during the game, (e.g. "I really want to win!") but also give compliments to the other team members during the game (e.g. "nice move"). If you lose, model a realistic but respectful response (e.g. "Ugh! Ok, good game.").


#4 Debrief


If your student still tantrums when they lose, hold space for them and let them be upset for a bit. Then debrief (keep the brief in debrief!) about the game. Take that information to help create an even more successful game play next time.

You may think that you shouldn’t have to do all this work to "play." Remember that kids play is work and with it comes the development of vital social skills such as empathy, social-awareness and self-regulation. These skills lay the foundation for a happy, well-adjusted future. Game play is often the first way in which kids establish social ties with their peers. Let's help them where they need it. 


Categories: board games, learning to lose