Making Mistakes


We all know the many wisdoms said about making mistakes that tell us about them being a learning opportunity, how they can often speed up and firmly consolidate our learning, that the vast majority of mistakes can be forgiven and that we all make them. However, when teaching pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties making a mistake at best causes the child to give up and at worst triggers a violent episode. (You have to pitch the challenge very carefully and offer lots of support all the time). I appreciate these children struggle to express their emotions resourcefully and their reactions are down one end of a spectrum but they do give an indicator of the potential emotional response we all feel when we make a mistake.

So despite knowing that most mistakes tend not to cause really serious damage, why can they trigger such feelings of shame? There is an evolutionary reason. We all know that ‘negative’ things stand out in our brains more than positive (in a hundred compliments we will mostly hear the one negative). There is a good reason for this. In survival terms it pays to more significantly notice the thing that could harm us. Our emotions did not evolve to keep us happy, they evolved to keep us safe. I think this transfers to making mistakes. The shame and other intense feelings would have accelerated our learning so we did not repeat the same dangerous mistake. Obviously, a learning environment is usually safe but our brains have not yet evolved to adjust for that.

What we feel when we make a mistake will also link to our self-esteem. That’s why self esteem and emotional literacy helps with learning. Every time we ask child is to learn something, we are asking them to take an emotional risk. Those with healthy self-worth are less likely to be devasted by not making a mistake.

So how do we support children to be comfortable with making mistakes in their learning? I think the rhetoric in modern classrooms is generally good at helping children feel reasonably comfortable with making mistakes. However, I think we can do more. Whether a child is learning to ride a bike or how to divide, we can support them by discussing what we all feel when we make a mistake. Name the shame! Bring it into consciousness, state it is perfectly normal and make it clear that it will pass. We also need to acknowledge that it might well put you off whatever you are trying to learn and make you frustrated but remind children of the courage needed to revisit something they found difficult. You can also remind them of the greater pleasure we feel when we finally master something we are not naturally talented at compared to the things we find really easy.