The Consequences Of Ungracious Behavior On FIRST LEGO League Robotics Teams

We have a 5th-grade student on our FLL robotics team who loves working with his teammates when preparing for the upcoming “Cargo Connect” challenge. However, we have noticed that whenever his team’s robot fails to complete a challenge on our test table, he can get very upset about it. He keeps telling his teammates that he might quit FLL if they all lose the upcoming competition season. I keep reminding him that FLL isn’t about winning, and that even if his team doesn’t win, the most important thing is to have fun while competing. I also keep telling him that sportsmanship is key to success, and its important to handle both winning and losing graciously.

I have also spoken to his parents about the behavior he is displaying in our robotics club, and they said they have been reminding him about gracious professionalism at home as well. They also said that they have been practicing winning and losing with their student by playing board games on weekends. Yet the student still continues to display signs of ungracious behavior whenever his team undergoes failure with their robot.

After I reported his behavior for the fourth time in three weeks, his parents told me to warn him of potential consequences that could follow if he does not show gracious professionalism at the upcoming competition in the fall. I have checked the official FIRST LEGO League website, and there isn’t much information there about consequences that could follow for not showing gracious professionalism, especially when losing a competition.

I’m all out of ideas. What do you think I should tell him?

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Get this kid a snickers bar and red gatorade. He’s a fifth grader

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What do you mean? Why should I reward him for this kind of behavior?

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Not punishing a child for an unwanted behavior doesn’t mean you’re rewarding them. The reference to a snack and a Gatorade is more to comfort a kid. At the end of the day, they’re not going to mature overnight.

I’ve run into kids and adults who don’t handle situations well like this all the time, they just need perspective instead of being told how to feel or how to not feel.

Competitive people get frustrated all the time. It’s a valid feeling to be upset when things don’t go your way. To that kid, this competition is the biggest thing on their plate in their 5th grade life. Recognize that it’s a valid emotion, but try to work with the student to turn that energy into a productive and positive response. Teach them analytical tools and methods to identify logically how and why something happened or went wrong, and how to go about figuring out a solution. These same strategies should be mimicked at home. Break the problem down into consumable steps and errors.

Our job is to give kids the tools to evaluate an outcome and determine a solution. Motivation to come up with a solution instead of quitting is often necessary for younger kids. The mentor telling kids to take a break and cool off is also a good strategy. The mentor stepping in to walk kids through an issue objectively is also a good strategy.

The toughest part of being a mentor is teaching kids how to digest and solve problems.

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Yeah, I guess you’re right…

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What Akash said. Being upset does not mean someone is ungracious. It’s normal to get upset with some situations. It’s how we handle those feelings that really determines the outcome - do we lash out, or do we use it as a driver to grow and improve? Sometimes people just don’t have the tools to handle these emotions properly, especially young kids.

I suggest taking a whole-team approach to a solution, while recognizing that you may need to spend a little more time with this one individual to help the message sink in. As a structured approach, consider the following:

  1. Goal setting. Set specific, measurable goals for each meeting. Make some goals achievable, and make sure there’s one or two goals that would be difficult to achieve - and identify them!
  2. Celebrate the achievements. When you hit a goal, recognize it!
  3. Retrospective analysis. Save a little time at the end of the meetings to look back. See which goals you hit, and which ones you didn’t. Talk about why you missed some goals, and what you, as a team, can do to improve. And then set the goals for the next meeting!
  4. Take win/lose out of the list of goals. When you get to competition, your list of goals should once again be measurable. Achieve a certain score, have everyone talk with the judges, etc. You can meet all of your goals and still not win - and that’s ok!
  5. Post-competition retrospective. Look back on the season and talk about how well you met your goals. Work to set some goals for next season, and talk about how you can improve the team next year.

This really gets around to two basic concepts: manage expectations, and focus on improvement. We all want to win, but we can’t all win. There’s too much that you, as a team, can’t control. Learning to set achievable goals, managing disappointments, and using your experiences to drive personal and team improvement is, perhaps, the single greatest thing you can teach these kids. It goes way beyond anything else we do with robotics. It’s more important than the technical knowledge kids get. It’s something that can benefit them their entire lives, regardless of the career they end up in.

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I found this a really effective strategy with 8-11 year olds when I was a summer camp counselor. Handling strong emotions is really hard at that age, often they need a few moments away from the upsetting situation to collect themselves. You may have to be clever about how to accomplish that at a competition where you need to supervise all the kids, follow YPP guidelines, etc but a break of some kind does wonders, whether it’s to get a snack, have a quiet chat with your or their parents, or even just a bathroom break.

It is really important to avoid escalating and making them more upset by scolding or punishing them in the moment. It’s better to have any talk about consequences well ahead of time (“We’ve talked before about [your habit of throwing a fit about quitting the team if we lose]. At the upcoming competition, it’s really important that you keep your cool and not [throw a tantrum]. If you feel yourself getting upset, you need to [go for a walk with your parents to cool down]. If you are not able to calm yourself down, [your parents will take you home]. Is that clear?” and fill in the [ ] with the specifics of the behavior and consequences appropriate to your situation).

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It seems like most people have covered the other parts of your question, but this one is sort of an unofficial rule. Judges/refs are always watching for outstanding demonstrations of gracious professionalism, and the lack thereof. If a referee, judge, or other volunteer sees something of note, it’s fairly easy to make a note to someone who’ll be in the deliberations room.

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Okay, that’s really helpful. Thank you so much.

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I can confirm that this has happened at an event that I was present at as a volunteer and that it did not go unconsidered by the judging team. However, the biggest thing is that I highly doubt this kid is doing it intentionally, echoing what has been said by others, and that too would also be considered by the judges (The real problem is if the behaviour is exhibited by the entirety of the team or by a mentor, as opposed to a single 5th grade student).

I can tell that you’re worried about this student creating negative vibes (for lack of a better word), and I can relate to that as it’s happened to a team I’ve worked with before. The hardest part of FLL that teams will experience is that new students expect it to be easy, and when reality hits them, it’s like being hit by an emotional truck. Students who are particularly emotional might struggle with it more than others. As mentioned by others in the thread, a good thing to do is to help your team define their goals, and celebrate the little wins where they appear. All of this is definitely something I agree with.

I mentioned your dilemma to my housemate, who is non-FIRST affiliated, since she’s doing her Master’s dissertation on emotional regulation in kids and she had some interesting insight. She pointed out that while playing board games with parents is a great start to developing emotional management skills, they’re not directly tied to their experience with FLL since there’s no clear ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ in practice meetings. Instead, FLL table work is more getting things right vs. wrong, and so they’re not creating as strong of an impact in the same section of the brain. Again, this isn’t to say that it won’t help, but if there’s any way possible that the work at home could be shifted to something less binary as winning and losing, that may have a greater impact. Something like learning how to cook, where there’s no ‘right’ answer on how to do things, might be an interesting way to come at this.

Something I would recommend doing, if you’re not already, is starting off all your meetings with a core values activity which can mimic the frustrations of robot work, but without the technical aspects attached. That will help them practice their core values (especially innovation, which is defined as ‘not giving up when things get tricky’). I would also see if it’s possible to try and get one of their parents to shadow a couple of meetings (and if not, an older sibling if possible). I’ve done this before as an FLL coach for all of my students, not just the problematic ones - it helps the parents understand what the kids are going through at meetings and I really believe it helps the students act on their best behaviour, both emotionally and productively.

Hopefully that gives you some food for thought!

P.S.: I’m not sure if is applicable for this individual situation, but this is just a general note for mentors of all teams - if you have a student with mental health difficulties or someone on the Autism spectrum, tell your JA or VC before your event, and that way it can be considered as well by the judges if someone seems disengaged, speaks out of place, etc.

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Definitely. It sure does. Thank you so much.

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I’ve been a JA at a few FLL qualifiers and can confirm that this happens. The events I’ve been at also have Incognito Judges walking around taking notes about just these kinds of things. Generally speaking, the consequences are much more severe if it’s an adult associated with a team displaying blatantly ungracious behaviors (we once DQ’d an FLL team because the adult coach was reprogramming the robot after being twice warned not to do that by volunteers and then they snapped at the volunteer).

If there are repeated notes taken about a student’s ungracious behavior, that might come into play if the deliberations are down to that team and another for an award. It might become a tipping point. Judges do understand the age group they’re working with and will be pretty lenient with kids. But if it’s down to two teams on pretty equal footing otherwise, I’ve seen the team consistently showing their GP get the award.

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Teams have been disqualified from winning any awards because of behavior. Even at World Festival.

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+1 to @Akash_Rastogi and @Jon_Stratis answers.

At the end of the day, students (or anyone really) wants to know you’re listening. They want to expresses themselves and the emotions they are going through. Once they do that, they can start moving forwards towards the right direction. Not truly listening only results in resistance.


I struggle with organization and time management for a long time. It came to a head in one of my last relationships, when the individual couldn’t understand why I could just “do better”. The issue was, I didn’t know how to do better. No one taught me to do better. While I wanted to do better, I just didn’t know how. I was really hurt by the position other took. Nothing changed.

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Wow. That’s really important to know. Thanks for telling me.

I just don’t want my entire team missing out on their chance to win an award because of one student’s poor behavior. If they announce the winners at the closing ceremony, and that student flips out, I would hope that the student could just be expelled from future competitions instead of ruining the whole team’s reputation.

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I know. I just don’t want one student’s behavior at the closing ceremony of one competition to ruin the whole team’s chances of winning future competitions.

The way judging in FIRST is setup this should never happen - what happens at Event A should have no bearing on what happens at Event B the following week, even if there’s crossover in volunteers. That’s not to say that a student flipping out in closing ceremonies if they find out they haven’t won something isn’t something to work on, talk about, and use as a teaching moment. I just want to make sure you know that this isn’t something you should be worried about.

In this same vein, outside of extreme circumstances no one is going to expel a student/mentor from competitions (current or future). If an outburst like that could occur it’s up to the team to make the decision on if the student should remain on the team or not or how to best mitigate the situation, but it’s not something that I’d expect FIRST to step in and take action on.

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Okay. Thanks for clarifying. That really helps.

It wasn’t one person on the team. It was the behavior of the team as a whole.

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There’s been a ton of great advice already in this thread. I’m the head Judge Advisor for FLL Challenge in Massachusetts, so I’ll add some more info on core values at events.

The actions of a single student, parent, or mentor can affect a team’s ability to win awards or advance at an event. If a Judge Advisor determines there is cause to disqualify a team from winning an award, they should only do so if the behavior is serious and verified as factual. The most common infraction that would lead to this is having someone beside the kids do the work. Additionally, if a team were disqualified from winning awards, the JA should speak to a coach on the team after the ceremony to let them know what happened, why they took that action, and how to improve going forward.

Each situation is unique, but given your description in the OP, I would consider a theoretical reaction by that student “below expectations” . Guidance from FLL in the past would mean this would only lead to being disqualified from winning awards if it happened many times, or was serious in nature. It would be investigated by the JA and be brought to the attention of the judges, who may use that information when determining award winners as well. It’s important to remember to have age appropriate expectations for the students. For a 10 year old, being upset, pouting, or not fully being able to process a loss is frowned upon, but within the realm of expectations.

I highly recommend doing some Core Values activities with the team at meetings. While the activities are no longer part of judging, they serve as a fun way to learn how to work together and lose with grace. A quick google search should show you a bunch, but if you’re interested in some I’ve used over the years, send me a PM. Specifically, I would look for some Kobayashi Maru like challenges to reinforce its about the process, not the outcome in a low stakes environment.

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