As your child has now returned to school after the holidays, they may be feeling an intense amount of pressure to make sure they do well.  This is often a cause of anxiety for our struggling learners. So I pose the question, when is it ok to get it wrong?

Over the years of tutoring, I’ve taken for granted that I provide a safe place for learners. I’ve had lots of learners walk through my door with various learning differences and although trained in dyslexia, I knew I needed to train myself in awareness and understanding of other learning differences to help me provide the right support for everyone. I’ve always graduated toward providing a holistic approach to learning. For me it’s not just about reading and spelling.  In the past, I have worked with learners who have presented with high levels of anxiety and demand avoidant ‘behaviours’ ( I hate using that word it has such negative connotations).

It was in fact a number of years ago now that a mature student told me that after years of anxiety related to learning, he knew when coming to my sessions, it was a safe space ‘to try’. He knew it didn’t matter if he got it wrong. In some respects this has made me a little complacent, as I automatically assume that anyone joining me for tuition will know it’s ok to make mistakes.  However, over the last few weeks some new learners have joined me for 1:1 tuition.  It’s always a little awkward for both parties on the first few sessions as we get to learn about each other and how we work.  It can be really hard for the learner, I suppose in many respects they know they are perhaps in need of extra support by the fact they are having sessions. I have no doubt they are already comparing themselves to peers. However, one things that always tends to strike me on on the first few sessions is the learner feels the need to not make any mistakes, or provide the right answer if I ask a question.  Too often I see a child look at a parent to check their expression that they’ve provided the right answer. I’ve even heard the quiet whisper of a parent, providing the answer.   Of course, this is natural instinct to help your child and for them not to feel awkward if they get it wrong.  However, if every answer is right, it’s unlikely you’d need tuition. If the answer is wrong, it of course helps me to measure where the gaps in their knowledge are and provide the right support and intervention. If it’s a topic we’ve been working on, I can check learning has taken place and if it hasn’t, I need to ask myself why. What happened that to the message I tried to communicate, can I do this differently? You see, by providing a wrong answer, I can also measure my skills. Maybe I should be looking at things differently too, could I have done something different? I always think there is a lot to be learned from students, by evaluating their responses, I feel it can only make me a better teacher.

However, I digress, The new students have woken me up again, to remind students about our sessions being a safe space to make mistakes. Although it’s also made me think about why children (and adults) feel the need to not get something wrong. I know I have had some of my greatest learning experiences from getting things wrong. Things that can’t be taught in teacher training and things we get wrong on a day to day basis, in life in general. Like why when I follow the recipe to the letter do my scones never rise?  When we make a mistake, it makes us reflect and evaluate our processes and what we did wrong.  It can be the simplest of things. Why do we cringe when getting it wrong? Why do we have this intense feeling of failure over the simplest and seemingly least important tasks? Why is there the need to feel perfect at everything, all of the time?

Taking the scone failure example. Yes I was annoyed. I put a lot of effort into it. I read the recipe, followed the recipe to the letter, took time and care and energy. I felt a sense of disappointment and failure and “why bother” when they looked like flat rock cakes. In fact they turn out wrong every time. I may as well give in! Why bother with the effort! My husband laughed and made his usual jokes about my attempt, his way of trying to make light of it.  Of course this is only making a scone. Something I did for ‘fun’, it wasn’t majorly important if it worked or not. It’s important to know, those very same feelings are there at a significantly more intense level for a child, who is in a class of 30 and has that sense of failure internally and imagines that everyone else knows/thinks they’ve ‘failed’.  I can only imagine the trauma a struggling child feels on a daily basis, the sense of dread, the sense of I tried and failed (again).  I can image the internal questions and conversations of why am I getting it wrong, what did I do wrong?  It’s very easy to see why a person wouldn’t want to try again.

We all know that it’s unlikely that the learner got every thing wrong in a task. In fact it’s likely there were positive outcomes.  Although it’s unlikely that the child can see it.

As a person that knows all too well how anxiety feels, when you anticipate a negative situation, something which causes you stress, your brain will play out the most creative of videos. This video isn’t always one of a past experience which happened. It may start based on a past experience which had a negative outcome, then the anxious brain creates a full blown movie about what it expects and predicts will happen. Then it hits the pause and rewind button. This part of the video is in constant replay, like groundhog day, stuck in that scene and never actually finishes. This is because the anxious brain sees no positive ending to this movie. In fact it struggles to process past this point and constantly reinforces the negative visual.

I know that a friend of CodeBreakers, Wendy Miller Coaching, would look at this in quite a different way. She has lots of way to support children through anxiety, you can read more form her on her blog

Read more here

As an adult, when we make a mistake, sometimes we cringe and bury our head in the sand but when we have gathered our thoughts we often reflect on what happened. I know the scones don’t have the same magnitude of disaster but once calmer, I reflected on what I knew might have gone wrong in the past. I knew my past mistakes and checked that I hadn’t repeated them this time. I ‘Googled’ it to check what are the types of errors can occur and reflected on my practice. I mentally ticked all the procedures I did right and queried the odd thing that might have contributed.   I checked my ingredients and checked the method. Essentially this is metacognition. As adults we pretty much do it naturally.  I find it’s not something that children tend to do as naturally. From a child’s perspective, it’s just seen as a mistake, they failed.

As an author of workbooks and a blog, there is an intense amount of pressure to get everything right. I spend hours working, developing processes and learning new techniques go into the production and publication. When presenting something to the public, it automatically puts it out there for criticism. There develops an intense need to triple check before anything can be released and be seen as the best it can be. One tiny mistake or another person’s negative view of something can have a big impact. Usually, any tiny mistake will completely out weigh all the positive feedback and be the main focus.  This is how our learners feel every time they feel they’ve made a mistake.  Of course, within education we have to ensure learning takes place and we can’t just brush over mistakes to make the learner feel better. This isn’t my suggestion. We can however empathise. We can of course create a culture where it is safe to make mistakes. We can show learners what metacognition is, demonstrate how they positively dealt with a task and what skills they bought to this task that made it a success, we can help them to reflect on what they can change next time, how can they do things differently. We can praise all the positives and mark positively (not only negative), we can help them to learn to see new positives, not just in their work but in their approach and mindset towards a task.

Thanks for reading

Georgina @CodeBreakers

Our new series 9 & 10 are ready to download from our website

Find series 1 individual workbooks on Amazon NOW