Mistakes Improve Children's Learning
Helping Kids See the Good Side of Getting Things Wrong
Posted September 7, 2011
Everyone makes mistakes and children are no exception. What's important is how we learn from them. Yet, children grow up in a society that pressures them to be perfect and intelligent - to achieve the highest SAT scores, land prized scholarships, and get into the best universities. Parents reinforce this pressure at home when they cover up children's mistakes, correct homework to improve grades, or drill knowledge into kids until they get it right. Stress is increased when children are constantly praised for their intelligence. How does this focus on perfection and IQ affect learning? And how can we help children and teens believe in themselves by accepting their mistakes and learning from them?
A recent Scientific American article, Getting it Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn, supports a number of learning and developmental theories. Historically, many educators have created conditions for learning that do not encourage errors. And parents have followed suit. For example, if we drill children over and over again with the same math problem, they will eventually remember the answer. And if they are lucky, they will remember the answer on a standardized test.
This approach to learning assumes that if students are allowed to make mistakes, they will not learn the correct information. However, recent research shows this to be an incorrect assumption. In fact, studies have found that learning is enhanced when children make mistakes!
Whether it involves homework, developing friendships, or playing soccer, learning is enriched through error. Making mistakes is part of how kids are challenged to learn to do things differently. It motivates them to try new approaches.
Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, studies the importance of challenging children, even if they get things wrong. Her research shows that praising children for their intelligence can actually make them less likely to persist in the face of challenge. She and her colleagues followed hundreds of 5th grade children in New York City schools. One group was praised for their intelligence while the other group was praised for their effort.
When the 5th graders were challenged with an extremely difficult test designed for 8th graders, a surprising result occurred. The students who had been praised for their effort worked very hard, even though they made a lot of mistakes. The kids praised for being smart became discouraged and saw their mistakes as a sign of failure. Intelligence testing for the kids praised for their effort increased by 30% while the kids praised for their intelligence dropped by 20%.
Dweck's work, described in the book MindSet: The New Psychology of Success reminds parents that glowing, unconditional praise that masks errors and mistakes is harmful to children's development. Being too quick with praise can be as detrimental as correcting homework mistakes that would have provided opportunities for learning.
Children make many kinds of mistakes. Some mistakes, like forgetting a homework assignment or not studying for an important test, have expected consequences. Others like lying, cheating, or actions that negatively affect friendships, have more complicated causes and are more complex to remedy. But all mistakes contain seeds of learning.
Ten Parenting Guidelines that Help Kids Learn from Mistakes
- Acknowledge that you don't expect your children to be perfect.
- Let them know your love is unconditional, regardless of their mistakes or lapses in judgment.
- Don't rescue children from their mistakes. Instead, help them focus on the solution.
- Provide examples of your own mistakes, the consequences, and how you learned from them.
- Encourage them to take responsibility for their mistakes and not blame others.
- Avoid pointing out their past mistakes. Instead, focus on the one at hand.
- Praise them for their ability to admit their mistakes.
- Praise them for their efforts and courage to overcome setbacks.
- Mentor them on how to apologize when their mistakes have hurt others.
- Help them look at the good side of getting things wrong!
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement.
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Photo Credits: Ktpupp; Lil Larkie
©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.