How to Handle Your Child’s Mistakes

If you have the opportunity to observe a classroom, you’re bound to see a pattern that is ever-present. Teachers will be asking lots of questions.

In response, some kids will raise their hands, eager to show what good students they are. Others will respond quite differently, keeping their eyes averted and their hands down (while simultaneously praying that they not be called upon).

Sensing that these kids have not done their assignments,” the teacher may well do exactly what the children fear and call upon one of them. That, in turn, will lead to a range of uncomfortable behaviors—from silence to a mumbled “I don’t know” or to a hesitant one-to-two word answer that is off the mark.

The teacher may use this behavior to offer a reprimand such as “Next time, I expect you to do your work.” Or he or she may turn to another student –this time one whose hand is raised—and obtain the correct answer. But one path that will not be taken is the one where the response is seen as evidence of a mistake for which the adult can supply the correct answer. “Telling the answer” seems an absolute no-no.

When I have asked teachers about this, they typically respond that providing the answer will discourage learning. It is phrased as, “If I tell him, how will he ever figure it out on his own?” That view suggests that we should all be forced to re-invent the wheel and that hardly seems reasonable.

In any event, none of this represents the child’s perspective. The mistakes, or errors, leave him feeling vulnerable and exposed. They are anything but a recipe for productive learning.

Regardless of the merits of change, schools—like most bureaucracies—are not likely to modify their techniques. The home, however, represents a very different situation. There, change is truly an option. And there, the change is also highly desirable.

Why? Because, when we, as parents assume a teaching role (as we do, for example, in supervising homework), we adopt the practices that we ourselves experienced over many years of schooling. In other words, not unexpectedly, we model our teaching on the teaching we ourselves received. The end result is that we bring to the home setting the same practices that can cause children so much pain in the classroom.

Here are a few strategies to turn things around.

1. Mistakes are not bad—it’s that too many mistakes that are bad
Mistakes are a part of learning and as reflected in the saying “We learn from our mistakes” they can often contribute to the learning process. What is destructive is excessive numbers of mistakes. So it’s important to get a sense of the amount of error that particular assignments generate—whether in math, reading, language arts, or any other curriculum domain. Then once you have identified those activities, do not have your child do them on his or her own. Instead, sit with your youngster and do whatever is appropriate to lessen the mistakes.

For example, for math problems that seem intractable, you might model the solution to a problem and then have your child repeat your solution. Will this teach your child the way to solve these problems independently? Perhaps not. That’s the teacher’s job. But you will have prevented the experience of failure and that is your primary goal at this point.

The lessening of failure has huge payoffs for a child’s approach to all learning. One little five year old conveyed what can happen when she said, “It’s OK that I don’t get it the first time. I will get it.”

2. Answer your child’s questions
Let’s consider a situation where a child points to a word and asks, “What does that say?” To this, I have seen both parents and teachers say, “What do you think it says?” When I ask the adult, “Why did you turn the question back on the child?” they typically say, “I thought he could do it on his own.”
That indeed may be the case. But if the child did know it, he is not learning anything more by answering your question. And if he did not know it, you have only reinforced error. In other words, there is nothing to be lost and a lot to be gained by simply answering many of the questions that your child poses in connection with homework assignments.

3. Provide access to easy sources of information

Let’s consider another possible response to a request for help—whether it be the decoding of a word (i.e., “what does that word say”), the meaning of a word (i.e., “what does that word mean?”) or the spelling of a word (i.e., “how do you write X?” There’s no reason to feel that you must always supply the information. Instead, you can teach your child to turn to readily available resources where the requested information can be obtained. For example, there are “talking dictionaries” on line and available from companies such Franklin which enable a child to answer many of the questions that come up in the course of reading. The key is to ensure that your child not flounder in error, but instead has the instruments to achieve a correct response.

If you have found techniques that work for you and your child, please leave me a comment and let me know!

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