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Learning from Mistakes: A Critical Life Skill

By Anne Nguyen, Director of Admissions

February 11, 2020

Let’s face it, making mistakes is not fun.  Owning mistakes is even harder.  It isn’t surprising that kids, like adults, want to be seen as competent.  They don’t want to feel embarrassed, and they definitely don’t want to disappoint important adults in their life.  The truth is that mistakes are uncomfortable!  So, when children do make mistakes, they sometimes deny it in an attempt to stave off that discomfort.  They might try to shift the blame, or lie, in order to avoid getting “in trouble” – and to evade unwelcome consequences.  This is a prime opportunity to support their learning and development.

We live in a society that puts a lot of pressure on children, especially here in Silicon Valley.  In some ways, they’re expected to do it all:  be hard-working students, get good grades, earn high scores on tests, and get into good colleges (preferably with scholarships).  They’re expected to start businesses, find internships and give back to the community.  On top of this, many children also participate in non-academic pastimes – like soccer, ballet, robotics, music, and gymnastics – either by choice or by parent directive.  These high expectations can lead to kids feeling like they have to be perfect.  And if you’re supposed to be perfect, it can be difficult to admit mistakes.

Some mistakes that happen at school are related to learning or work.  These kinds of mistakes are generally easier to navigate.  If a child makes a mistake in their work (e.g. incorrect computation, a misspelled word, incorrectly identifying the parts of a volcano) it’s a matter of identifying the source of the mistake and correcting it.  In an instance like this, there is no other person involved, so no interpersonal problem-solving is required. However, there are children who can be very hard on themselves when they make mistakes.  Again, this is the time to help children see that mistakes are the BEST part of learning because they help us grow!

Mistakes that happen in social situations, which are inevitable when children interact, are generally more complex and challenging.  But they are also opportunities.  In this realm, when we help children own their mistakes, we’re helping them to hone important problem-solving skills.  When a conflict occurs, we guide children to reflect on and process what happened.  We help them look at the situation through observations, rather than judgement, in an effort to remain objective.  It can be helpful to consider the feelings and needs of those involved, before thinking about how best to move forward.  We want kids to know that mistakes are OK!  It’s how you respond that’s important.

Owning the mistake is often the hardest part, and it can actually bring some relief.  Understanding the why behind the mistake is also important.  Once those things have been figured out – and this can be a process – the child is encouraged to decide how to try and make amends.  Children (and many adults) tend to quickly leap to, “I’m sorry.”  But an empty or forced sorry is meaningless, and kids know it – so that is a trap to be avoided.  It can be helpful to think about the situation from the perspective of the other person or people involved.  What is it that they might want?  What will make it better for them?  How can trust be rebuilt?

When children gain practice in owning their mistakes and solving problems, whether in the academic or social realm, they begin to develop trust in their own abilities.  And, when children feel more confident in their ability to handle mistakes, and they understand that mistakes are OK, they tend to be more willing to take risks.

Parents can sometimes get in the way of this learning unintentionally.  Ever run home to get your child’s Friday Folder, backpack, lunch, jacket, etc.?  It’s completely natural to want to support, nurture and protect your child.  It’s instinctual.  Sometimes, this instinct drives parents to solve problems for their child, rather than supporting the child to work through the problem.  Another common tendency is for parents to shield their child from the natural consequences of a mistake.  These actions can take away the opportunity for learning and growth.

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life – so how can you support?  When your child makes a mistake, try to approach it as an opportunity.  Provide guidance in processing what happened, if needed.  When your child owns a mistake, acknowledge their honesty and courage.  Allow them to experience consequences (within the bounds of safety), and encourage their efforts to make things right.  And finally, model taking responsibility for your own mistakes.  Modeling is a powerful teacher.

I Interrupt Your Normal Programming for…

By Tyler Bourcier, Head of School

January 21, 2020

The first time I ever worked in an elementary school was as a Kindergarten class intern within the public schools in Washington state. Over that year, I was asked to take on more responsibilities from the Lead Teacher, so I’d slowly grow more comfortable with the increased expectations of guiding and supervising a classroom of students. There were ample reasons to love the experience: joyful children, supportive faculty, and the space to ask questions and experiment with ideas.

Every day, around 9:30, the entire class would transition to “reading time,” which the students seemed to enjoy. Well, most of the students enjoyed the time, save one. For this story, we’ll call him Tucker! A few minutes before 9:30, the bell would ring for a transition that the teacher had planned. Over the weeks, Tucker had developed a pattern of coming to school, participating in Circle, and then immediately heading to the block area where he would create elaborate cities and buildings. These structures were magnificent and his friends would often collaborate with him, resulting in even more extensive civilizations. Tucker soon learned that this bell meant that he needed to put away his work, and join everyone else in the same activity- reading.

The pattern was soon set for Tucker to hear the bell, and reliably become very upset that he had to put away his work to make space for the next thing.  Prior to the bell, Tucker was in “the zone,” “concentrating,” “self-regulating,” or any one of many terms used to describe an individual who is humming along with their work. This bell told Tucker that his work was not as important as the schedule, and that the needs of the teacher and group out-ranked his sense of order. The transitions did not go well.  Eventually, Tucker would join his peers in reading, but he wasn’t too keen on investing his focus in reading after such an emotional experience. The interruption of Tucker’s work, as well as its message, sticks with me as a meaningful lesson.

Not much later in life, I became an assistant in a Montessori classroom.  This kind of general interruption did not occur, and more to the point – breaking a child’s concentration was frowned upon. It was there that I found a new direction to head in the world of education, one that increasingly supported and honored the child as a critical and dynamic part of their own education. With a major goal of helping children to develop and strengthen their ability to concentrate, a tenet of Montessori’s philosophy was to never interrupt a focused child. To honor that focus is to honor the internal work of the child. There are few more powerful messages that we can stress to our children, no matter the age- putting energy and attention into work is valuable, and each of us has the right to direct and follow this energy.

At Casa, I’m grateful that we honor each child’s intention and work. Like a family, we are a community of individuals, which suggests a need for flexibility and compromise at times. However, the importance behind allowing work cycles to be completed and attention to naturally shift is still a critical piece of what creates our ambiance.  This patience and understanding is yet another building block to how Peace Education is modeled and implemented at Casa di Mir.  At this point, Tucker is old enough to have conversations with his own children about cleaning up for transitions. Unbeknownst to Tucker, he taught a lesson that I’ve carried for 20 years. As educators, it is part of our perspective to keep this sensitivity for interruptions in mind as we operate through the school day. No matter the role you play with children, the power of allowing children to complete their work before moving on is easy to witness, as it usually results in smoother transitions and an increased willingness. Who doesn’t want that? Plus, your patience may result in an even more amazing civilization (in blocks or otherwise)!

Tyler Bourcier, Head of School