I often see children who are anxious when faced with new challenges, worrying that they might make a mistake. The fear of making a mistake over-powers and inhibits their ability to think clearly, listen to instructions and plan how they actually will do the task. Therefore, they do worse in the task than they actually can do.
Probably the most important lesson to teach our children is that it is acceptable to make mistakes. Yes, it is acceptable to get things wrong! There is so much a child can learn from his mistakes. Teach your child that if he never makes a mistake, he is not learning anything new. I regularly tell this to the children I work with, explaining that if they don’t make any mistakes it means they already know how to do the task; there’s nothing new being learnt. I love to see the smiles of relief on their faces, when they make this realisation! Their anxiety drops and they become energised to take the risk of making mistakes which is such an important part of learning.
Children often think of mistakes as being something negative, to be avoided at all costs. Corrections are given as homework tasks with the result that it feels like punishment. A big red cross through incorrect work gives very negative feedback about mistakes. In my work I often see the more diligent children struggle the most with this; becoming immobilised in their learning through fear of making mistakes. We cannot allow that; we have to maintain and cultivate their diligence and turn it into the rewarding sense of success.
One of my first tasks with these children is to remove the anxiety of failure and replace it with a sense of challenge. A chance to make a mistake is a chance to learn something new.
Here are some helpful tips:
- When you present a new learning challenge to a child who is anxious about making mistakes, be calm and supportive. Tell him “here is a new challenge, something new to learn. Let me show you how and then you can try it yourself.”
- When you see that he is about to make a mistake let him make the mistake. Watch his reaction. If he has not noticed his mistake, say to him “look and check, there might be something you want to change”. This shows him that you are comfortable that he made the mistake and also that you believe he will be able to deal with it.
- If he is unable to correct his mistake or becomes anxious say to him “let’s see how we can fix this mistake and then you’ll have learnt something new.”
Teaching children strategies for finding and correcting their own mistakes is powerful teaching. It teaches them planning and organisation in their approach to tasks. It also develops meta-cognitive thinking processes of analysis and making connections in our thinking. Most of all, it teaches them that mistakes are not a problem; we find them, correct them and learn something new!