KIDS
February 8, 2017

The Power of Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Some of us are better about using them to good advantage, however. Here's why.

One of the most valuable things parent and teachers can do for kids is to help them learn from their mistakes. And that begins with having them pay attention to their errors.

Many parents and teachers take the opposite approach. They might say, for example, “Good job!” when kids are having trouble, or, “Don't worry. You'll get it the next time.” Though well-meaning, this kind of praise doesn't take advantage of the value of looking more closely at one's mistakes.

The problem is, when parents don't acknowledge mistakes, they don't give kids a chance to figure out what went wrong. This deprives children of an important opportunity to learn, says Hans Schroder, one of the authors of a new study about kids' attitudes toward mistakes. “Instead [parents] could say: ‘Mistakes happen, so let's try to pay attention to what went wrong and figure it out,’” he added.

The key seems to be believing that intelligence can grow. Children who think they can get smarter are better able to pay attention to and bounce back from their mistakes than kids who think intelligence is fixed, the Michigan State University study found.

Children who believed they could get smarter — who had a growth mindset — were more likely to have a larger brain response after making a mistake. They were also more likely to improve their performance.

Over 120 children, average age 7, took part in the study. They were just starting to make the transition to formal schooling, a time when attitudes toward mistakes can have a big impact on academic success.

First, the researchers asked the children questions to determine whether they believed people can work harder and get smarter — a growth mindset — or believed intelligence cannot be changed — a fixed mindset.

Then the children played a fast-moving accuracy game on a computer to test how they handled mistakes while their brain activity was recorded. They had to help a zookeeper capture escaped animals by pressing the spacebar when an animal appeared. The exception was if the animal that appeared was a group of three orangutan friends who were helping capture the other animals. Then they had to withhold their response.

When a person becomes aware of a mistake, brain activity increases. A bigger brain response means the person is focusing more on the error and paying attention to what went wrong.

Children who believed they could get better — who had a growth mindset — were significantly more likely to have this larger brain response after making a mistake. They were also more likely to improve their performance after making a mistake.

The good news is that even children with fixed mindsets were able to bounce back after their mistakes, but only if they were helped to pay attention to their errors.

Previous research has shown that people who have a fixed mindset, who don't feel they can overcome a mistake, also tend not to want to acknowledge their mistake. They may even boast about something else they're good at to defend themselves against acknowledging their errors.

But this study suggests that the more attention children give to their errors, the better able to recover and learn they will be. “The main implication here is that we should pay close attention to our mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn,” said Schroder.

The study is published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
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