Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Help Students Accept Mistakes

Like most teachers, you probably have a student in your class who avoids his work or who works nicely until he makes a mistake and then shuts down. Maybe you even have a student  who physically or verbally aggresses when faced with a difficult task.

What is an area in which you do NOT excel? I mean, something you’re really, really terrible at doing—so much so that it’s embarrassing to you? Maybe it’s dancing, singing, playing sports, or public speaking? What’s the thing you would avoid with a ten-foot pole if possible?

Now, imagine you have to perform your area of not-so-expertise in front of a crowd of people who are really good at whatever it is that is tough for you, and you’re going to be graded on this. The people closest to you will also get a report on how you did with it.

Now, what if your area of not-so-expertise was reading, writing, math, or socialization?

Welcome to school.
Okay, I’m your teacher, and I understand that this area is really difficult for you. I get it. I’m going to make this worth your while. If you do the thing that you do NOT feel confident doing, I’ll give you a goldfish cracker! No? That’s not motivating enough? Well, how ‘bout I’ll give you a sticker? Okay, okay, that must not be reinforcing enough for you. You can earn a candy bar for this! I know you love candy bars.

I don’t know about you, but there are not enough stickers, candy bars, or even extra recesses to get me to want to sing and dance in front of a group of professional singers and dancers. I just do NOT want to do it.

Also, I can’t lift a 250-pound refrigerator, not for all the goldfish crackers in the world. I simply can’t do it. The child who truly can’t read yet simply won’t want to do it, not for all the reinforcement in the world.

There also isn’t enough reinforcement that can alone get an “avoider” to want to do his work. Maybe, you can get him to just give in and do it, but can you get him to want to do it? Our job isn’t just to teach academics; it’s to teach children to love learning.

But how?

We often say that the student will do anything to avoid writing—but is he really avoiding writing, or is he avoiding the embarrassment associated with writing? Is he avoiding reading, or is he avoiding the feeling he gets when he makes a mistake while reading?

For such a complicated situation, there’s really an easy fix—confidence!

But how do we help students build confidence? I mean, don’t we compliment them all the time, point out the great things they do, hang their work, and so on? Yes, we do, because we’re awesome like that. It still isn’t changing the student’s behavior, though. We’d better go deeper.

One of my kiddos said to me, “I’m bad at math,” and I told him he’s not. I pointed up to his work hanging on the wall, a math assignment with a great big star! He said, “So what? Everybody on that wall got a good grade.” Oh. Touche.

Suddenly, my focus shifted from getting him to solve complicated math problems to getting him to learn how to learn. He needed the tools, the detours around his difficulties, and the confidence to proceed. He needed the hand truck to help him move his 250-pound refrigerator.

“Today, we’re going to try something different.”

I explained to him that today we were going to try something different. I told him I noticed he doesn’t love math, and I was going to help him with that. I asked him to tell me why. He gave me a pretty long list of things he doesn’t like—most of them related to his low confidence in the area. For students that won’t tell you what they don’t like, you probably already have an idea of what they don’t like anyway.

I explained to him that every kid in his class makes mistakes and gets problems incorrect—even the smartest kids. I told him about how most of the time kids raise their hands to answer questions they know the answers to and keep their hands down for the ones about which they are unsure. I explicitly taught him this “hidden” concept, that not everyone is great at everything.

If you’ve read my blog before, I like to compare learning needs to road blocks. My students are NOT allowed to blame something on a learning need or disability; they MUST find a detour. We wouldn’t end our trip simply because a road was closed, so we won’t end our educations—our most precious, important opportunity—over a mere roadblock. We’ll find a detour, or, if we must, build one ourselves.

Now, I aimed to help this student find or build his detour. I told him that we would find ways around or through each of the things he doesn’t love about math, together. I tried this once with a younger student who would not tell me what he didn’t like about math, but my telling him that was enough. He didn’t need to identify what he didn’t like yet. He just needed to know that we would work through this temporary feeling together.

Our first objective would be to learn how to accept mistakes. I had him help make a T-chart for me—“mistakes” on one side, “corrections” on the other side. I told him that he was the only kid in the class who knew about this ahead of time and to keep it a secret. I put it on the board, and throughout the day, we tallied each mistake I made. I made 27 mistakes (some on purpose, but they didn’t need to know that… shhhh). They LOVED this, and we laughed all day.

Over and over, I said, “Everybody makes mistakes! Even teachers!”

Next, I challenged him. Let’s see who could accept the most mistakes. [evil laughter]. He used his own T-chart on his desk, and I praised him each time he worked through a mistake. He made a mistake and laughed. [cue “Hallelujah Chorus”]

The next day, I planned a math game. Lately, I had been avoiding math board games. They had been going well, up until he got a question incorrect or didn’t know an answer. Then, the board game pieces would be thrown, or he would shut down completely. But that day, I planned the board game. I had butterflies in my stomach, but I planned it.

“Do you know this, or is this something I get to teach you?”

I let him know ahead of time that today we would be doing something different. I told him that this game would have easy questions and hard questions. The reason for this was so that I could get an idea of what he already knows, that I don’t get to teach him, and what he doesn’t know yet, that I get to teach him. “I love mistakes!” I told him, “because those are the things I get to teach you, and I love teaching new things!”

This wasn’t quite strong enough for my younger student the first time I tried this, so I had him take a bonus turn each time me made a mistake but accepted it and tried again. Quickly, both students learned that with a little extra effort, they could find the answer.

This taught me something important—Neither of these students had realized before that moment that everyone doesn’t always know everything immediately. My older student told me that the kids raise their hands and immediately know the answer. He didn’t realize that they figured out the answer and THEN raised their hands. He thought it was supposed to be instantaneous. I had to explicitly teach and show him how much time a problem is supposed to take to work out, and how that varies for everyone. Everyone’s brains work at different speeds, and it doesn’t matter who gets there first; it only matters that we all get there. I related this concept to video games—some take longer than others to load, but that doesn’t change how the awesomeness of the game. We all will get there, at a pace that is right for us.

I spent the entire year building this child’s confidence. I brought in activities that I knew he would like and with which he would excel—and yes, some of it was a little bit below what he could do. I wanted him to get a taste of success. He didn’t learn ALL of the concepts as the other kids in the class, but I can assure you that he learned more than he would have if he had hidden under his desk for the entire school year. That’s for sure.

Friday was our last day of school, and I had them write their favorite memories of our school year. He wrote “Math” for his. Needless to say, I got tears in my eyes. During the last week, he made a mistake and said, “Who cares if you make mistakes?” I got tears in my eyes again. Now he probably thinks I’m crazy, but I don’t care. He doesn't hate math anymore. He can make mistakes and accept them now. It took us a whole school year to get there, but we got there.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Christine! I appreciate you sharing this!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeanette! Glad to hear others out there agree!

  3. LOVE this - Such a vital lesson for all of our kiddos to learn.. well done, a true success story!!

  4. Thanks, Bree! I'm so proud of him! I'm glad you see it as vital. We need more people like you in the worls! Thanks again!

  5. Very inspiring. This helps me a lot thinking about next year. Thanks for sharing!


    1. So happy to hear that, Jamie! Thanks for your comment!

  6. Really amazing! I'm sure you just changed the course of his life! Inspiring!

    1. Aw, thank you so much, Mrs.H.! I really hope so! :)

  7. Sorry to bombard your blog with comments but it's so helpful! I think it's so important for teachers to teach students confidence and positive head talk and this post shows it actually works! In one of my classes we talked about verbal behavior and how it's important to give students opportunities to 100% succeed and that helps them realize their potential. I love to see that it worked! These light bulb moments are why I want to teach and I can't wait to have experiences like this one! Awesome job.

    1. Caitlin, you sound like you will be an awesome teacher! I LOVE comments, so comment away! :) Thanks!!