For little people who are still working to master many skills, mistakes happen all.the.time. In fact, the way we learn is by making mistakes. For children who struggle with making mistakes, this can be incredibly problematic. Some children ‘shut down’ and become unresponsive. Others refuse to acknowledge that they made an error – often insisting that whatever happened was somebody else’s fault. Some have large, emotional, responses to mistakes. All of these responses and reactions make peer engagement and participation in group activities more challenging (do you like to hang out with people who cannot acknowledge when they made a mistake?). Even more importantly, it doesn’t feel good to the child.
“Calmly and confidently making mistakes is a skill - which means it can be taught and improves with practice.” — Janelle Fenwick
On the one hand, children are expected to repeatedly make mistakes while learning new skills. But on the other hand, for some, it feels completely unbearable to make mistakes. So what can we do? Calmly and confidently making mistakes is a skill – which means it can be taught and improved with practice. I’ve outlined seven strategies to help children better understand mistakes and to reduce some of the emotional response associated with making mistakes.
Six Ways to Help Your Child Calmly Make Mistakes
1. DRAW ATTENTION TO YOUR OWN MISTAKES
Yup, this is a super comfortable one ;-). Parents, teachers, and caregivers are the best models. During life, when you make a mistake, draw attention to it. The key here is to be factual about what happened. Consider the difference:
“Gah! I can’t believe I spilled coffee everywhere. Now we’re going to be late and I have to change. I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I did that again”
“I spilled my coffee, that was a mistake. I was thinking about getting my keys and bumped my coffee instead, whoops”
I know, it’s easier said than done because mistakes can be incredibly frustrating. However, if we as adults cannot control and alter our own responses and reactions to mistakes then is it really fair for us to ask the same of children?
2. LEARN ABOUT FAMOUS MISTAKES
The slinky, silly putty, post-it, all created because someone made (and explored) a mistake. Explore some famous mistakes to notice how people responded to the mistake. Consider what would have happened if the mistake was never ‘claimed’ or even explored! Here's a starting point for your mistakes exploration.
3. PRACTICE MAKING MISTAKES
So technically if you’re practicing making a mistake it’s not really a mistake (mistakes are unintentional). But we know that responding to mistakes in a calm fashion is a skill – and skills we can improve and learn through practice. I like to start by first highlighting my own mistakes during a task. I then ease into outlining that I’m actually going to practice making mistakes.
Ideally you practice mistakes using similar situations that are tricky for your child (individualizing is so important!). Common ‘high mistake frustration’ activities include: art, block building, Legos (seriously, how frustrating is it when your Lego creation flies apart as you try to put on a piece!?!?!).
4. READ BOOKS ABOUT MAKING MISTAKES
Books serve as a ‘safe space’ to explore more challenging ideas. It can feel more comfortable to talk about mistakes when you’re talking about a character’s mistakes. Check out How to Use Books to Support Children in Making Mistakes for more ideas for how to begin this conversation and ways to use these amazing books.
5. RECOGNIZE HARD WORK AND PRACTICE
Successful end products more naturally tend to be celebrated. It’s less common for people to celebrate hard work and practice – and yet it’s the hard work and the practice that helps us ultimately achieve the end products! Give positive comments for practice and hard work.
As you see your child working on a puzzle, comment on how many ways they tried to make their piece fit or how hard they worked to make a piece fit - “I noticed you working to find where that piece belonged. It looked tricky but you kept at it”.
6. HIGHLIGHT WHAT YOU ARE PRACTICING AND LEARNING
We want our children to be comfortable practicing, making mistakes, and learning. So again, we must model those actions ourselves. Think about something you’re working towards – a personal goal or something that is hard for you. Perhaps you’re working to run a certain number of miles or to cook a new dessert. If your job requires assessments or continuing education requirements, let your children know when you’re studying for tests or working on developing these new skills.
So there you have it: Six ways to help your child feel more confident to make mistakes
Let me know which ones you try and how it goes!
Adapted from: “What to Do If Your Child Struggles with Mistakes.” Express Yourself, NC, www.expressyourselfnc.com/blog//what-to-do-if-your-child-struggles-with-mistakes. Accessed 18 Apr. 2023.