In 4th grade, I was the class finalist in the school spelling bee. I was doing well until the word ‘scissors’ was called. I spelled it with an ‘-er’ instead of an ‘-or’ and had to take that long walk back to my seat, devastated. After that failure, I have NEVER forgotten how to spell ‘scissors’. I learned, processed and progressed.
Making mistakes is one of the best experiences for learning and retention. Science backs this up: Psychologist Jason Moser studied the neural mechanisms that operate in people’s brains when they make mistakes (Moser et al., 2011). Moser and his group found something fascinating. When we make a mistake, synapses fire. A synapse is an electrical signal that moves between parts of the brain when learning occurs.
When parents ask me how this can be possible, I tell them that the best thinking we have on this now is that the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle—- the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth.
Failure is not only opportunity for learning, as students consider the mistakes, but also the time when our brains grow. Understanding the power of mistakes is critical, as children and adults everywhere often feel terrible when they make a mistake. By reflecting upon the effort they gave before and after, they can determine what they should have done differently to improve their process.
4 tips to help your child turn ‘failures’ into learning experiences:
1) Understand how Learning Takes Place: Learning best happens when your child is focused, exerts effort, and spreads out the learning over at least several days. Cramming doesn’t store information in long term memory.
2) Reality Check: Your child needs to learn how to manage and measure effort. Failure often happens because of a mismatch between effort and performance. If your child does not realize how much effort they need to succeed, they may then perform poorly. Parents can encourage self-reflection by asking:
What steps did you take to prepare? How much effort did you put into preparation?
How much effort should you have put into this? Was there a mismatch between effort and performance… and why?
3) Keep the Door Open: When it comes to academics, your child also needs to feel comfortable coming to you to discuss their grades. When you were in school, did you ever get a low grade on a test and were afraid to tell your parents about it? Were you worried that your parents would freak out and you would get in trouble? Keep the door open for discussion in a non-confrontational way.
4) Be The Parent: Now that your child has taken steps to learn from their failure in a structured way, you should review and monitor what they are doing. This way, you are ensuring that they are making improvements. Check that they put in the required effort and take accountability for their learning. And yes, mete out consequences when necessary to ensure that they are putting forth the effort.
When you see failure as an opportunity to receive feedback on strengths as well as areas of improvement — all for the purpose of getting better, making mistakes is incredibly powerful and essential for progress.