Turning mistakes into learning opportunities

Mar 2012
"One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes"

Mistakes can be positive opportunities for growth and parents will often have a significant task to convince their children that behind every learning cloud there is an inevitable silver lining.

Parents can play an active part in helping their children change their perceptions of failure and success. According to a recent study, the difference between a mistake and an opportunity is something that is concocted in the human mind.

A study, set to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that those people who imagined that they could draw lessons from their so-called 'failures' actually had different brain reaction to mistakes than those who imagined that intelligence is a fixed quality.

"One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes," says Jason S. Moser, of Michigan State University in the US.

UK schools have made a recent bid to help pupils become more resilient to mistakes and disappointment, as they deal with the effects of the current economic crisis.

'Bounce back' experts are set to train teachers from 60 schools in resilience skills, and 15 schools have already signed up to the scheme.

Chris Jones, Founding Director of the Young Foundation's Resilience project, which is organising the teacher training, said pupils need to get to grips with failure: "In the past we probably had a harder life in some respects. We didn't take things for granted."

Dr Helen Wright, Head of St Mary's Calne School in Wiltshire, said teenagers were leaving school without the emotional stamina necessary to deal with the complexities of the modern world: "There is a danger that we wrap our children in cotton wool, we have become less tolerant of risk-taking." She added that we are now banning risk taking activities in schools and this will only serve to impede children's progress.

"If these silly rules persist, we will be bringing up a generation of fearful children."

Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, also called for measures that would enable children to gain strength and motivation from their mistakes: "Failure can happen to anyone, and pupils need to cope and learn from it. The most successful entrepreneurs often failed many times, but it didn't stop their drive."

Parents of children who may not deal well with life's disappointments, both large and small, should try the following techniques to help their children learn from their mistakes.

Demonstrate how initial mistakes have led to later successes
Show children examples of failures made by scientists, politicians and other leading figures and how this led to eventual success. Thomas Edison made multiple failed attempts before he perfected the invention of the light bulb.

Go through children's old text books with them and show them how far they have come since they started school. Highlight the fact that they had to make mistakes in reading, writing and mathematics that they later went on to overcome.

Parents can also talk about mistakes they have made in their own lives, such as a career choice, and go through the steps they took to remedy the situation. For example, they may have re-trained and landed themselves a role that was much more enjoyable than their initial career path.

Help children get perspective on their mistakes
Make light of your children's mistakes and spur them on by getting them to take a little time to reflect on what they thought went wrong. Guide them in drawing a positive conclusion by using questions such as the following:

  • What did you do correctly in this situation?

  • What could you improve on?

  • What will you try and do next time?

  • What have you learnt?


Reward children for their efforts
Praise your children when they make attempts at completing activities, even if they don't succeed. Offer a few words of encouragement and you could soon see children thriving, even when they get answers or activities wrong.

Dr. Peter Goldenthal suggests the following ways to help your children respond positively to adversity:

  • Put the situation into perspective. Show your children that a setback is not the end of the world.

  • Don't rush to the rescue. Let your children try to solve the problem themselves.

  • Play up the positive. Point out to your children all the good things that happened besides the obstacle.

  • Suggest step-by-step success. Help your children to set goals by using the setback as motivation.