Why Making Mistakes Now May Benefit Us Later
The Covid-19 crisis has impacted so many people in a myriad of ways, from parents to teachers to young children. Lately, I’ve had to change the way I work, where I work, how I work, and even when I work. All of these changes bring with them a lot of anxiety and discomfort, plus a whole lot of worry that I am not doing anything very well. This is where my training as a developmental psychologist and teacher educator comes in. Of course, I still need to remind myself to take a step back and remember what I have learned.
So, when things start to go awry, as they frequently do these days, this is what I say to myself: “It’s okay to make mistakes!” And, “Don’t forget to approach new situations with a growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck the Stanford psychologist. Having a growth mindset means that I believe I can learn anything, even new and challenging things, with effort, hard work, and perseverance. Reminding myself of these two things allows me to see this very difficult time as a time for growth. It reminds me (for example) that just because I don’t know all the ins and outs of virtual technology, doesn’t mean I am stupid, or won’t ever learn how to use it. The hardest part, admittedly, is making a mistake in front of other people. Like the time (okay, this morning) when I accidentally muted 50 teachers on a virtual conference call but managed to make it a permanent thing, so no one could unmute themselves when it was time for discussion...
That was a good time to remind myself that making mistakes actually makes you smarter, especially if you try to fix the mistake. Brain science backs this up. Recent neurological research has shown that our brains have increased neural connectivity when we make mistakes. Researchers have found that when we make a mistake our neurons “spark” and send electrical brain signals, whether we realize we made a mistake or not. In fact, our brains actually spark twice: once when we make a mistake, and then again when we consider that mistake. Even better – when we have a growth mindset about mistakes, our brains show more neural activity. In this research, they also showed that when people with a growth mindset made a mistake, they had a greater awareness of those errors and were more likely to try and correct their mistakes. When everyone went back and tried the task again, people with a growth mindset (as compared to those with a fixed mindset) were more accurate and made fewer mistakes than they did the first time. The latest research shows that this holds true for school-aged children with a growth mindset too. If you enter a new or challenging situation believing you can learn anything (having a growth mindset), but mess up (make a mistake), your brain will react more positively than if you go into a situation thinking, “I don’t think I can do this”.
As adults, in this challenging time, this perspective is helpful for us to keep in mind. But many of us are home with children who are also learning new things and taking on new challenges. So how can we encourage them to have a growth mindset about mistakes? Here are some suggestions.
- Normalize mistakes. Remind your child that mistakes are a normal part of learning and talk about a time when you made a mistake. Mention what you learned from it or how you tried to solve the problem.
- Stay calm. Research shows that the way adults react to children’s mistakes influences their mindset. The key is to try not to react with anxiety or frustration when your child makes a mistake or faces a setback. This is not easy! If you find yourself feeling anxious about a child’s mistakes, it can be a good practice to try under-reacting first. You can always ramp up, but it can be very hard for many people to ramp down.
- Reflect on the mistake. After your child makes a mistake (and things have calmed down) think of the mistake as the beginning of the learning process (not the end) and help your child to reflect on their mistake. Ask them to describe what happened when they made the mistake, but make sure to follow with, “So what could you do differently next time?”
- Strategize. Encourage your child to come up with new ways to solve the problem or fix the mistake. Problem-solving is an important part of the learning process and encouraging children to come up with new strategies to fix a mistake will result in more brain growth! Resist the urge to tell your child how to fix the mistake (another really hard thing to do!) as lecturing and telling children how to fix mistakes can lead them to develop a fixed mindset if they think their parents don’t see them as capable.
- Give permission to fail. Encourage your child to try new things, without fear of failure. When trying something new, send messages like, “This is something new I’m trying to learn, so I’m not going to be good at this right away. I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. I’m growing my brain by trying something new and challenging!”
- “Practice means progress!” Change the age-old adage and send the message that the goal is learning, not perfection. Notice when progress is being made and encourage them to keep going.
Dweck, Carol S. (2008) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 1(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsl013.
Moser, J.S., Schroder, H.S., Heeter, C., Moran, T.P., Lee, Y.H. Mind your errors: evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive posterror adjustments. Psychol Sci. 2011;22(12):1484‐1489. doi:10.1177/0956797611419520
Schroder, H.S., Fisher, M., Lin, Y., Lo, S., Danovitch, J.H., Moser, J.S. (2017). Neural evidence for enhanced attention to mistakes among school-aged children with a growth mindset. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 42-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2017.01.004.
Jessica Mercer Young is a developmental psychologist and Principal Research Scientist at the Education Development Center. A former preschool teacher, Dr. Young is dedicated to providing equitable learning opportunities for all children, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in STEM.