Mistakes – self-regulation failure or just learning?

First, let’s look at what a mistake is. Lots of definitions paint a negative picture about mistakes, saying they’re caused by bad judgement, carelessness, or poor reasoning. Most definitions of mistakes make them sound bad. No wonder many of us get upset when we make mistakes.

To me, a mistake is something you did, said or thought that produces a result you didn’t want or expect. You end up in a situation you didn’t want to be in. 

Mistakes happen for two main reasons: you’re just learning something or you forget to self-regulate.  

Mistakes happen when you’re just learning 

Some mistakes happen because you haven’t done something before. You might have high expectations but you’ll probably make mistakes when you’re just learning. Few people can do something perfectly the first time. Unfortunately, many people get upset when it’s not error-free.

When you make a mistake, you have two choices: quit or keep trying. In some situations, you won’t have much choice about quitting. At school, you’re expected to keep trying. At work, you can’t just walk away when something isn’t going perfectly.

If you keep trying, things should get better … with enough practice. When starting out, most things are a bit challenging. Persistence and belief in yourself can carry you a long way. If you keep trying and practicing, you’ll get better and make fewer mistakes. You might even become an expert.   

The general pattern looks like this: when you start, you struggle. As you start learning, you improve quickly. After reaching a certain skill level, your rate of improvement drops off. You’ll continue to make gains if you persevere. More importantly, you’ll make fewer and fewer errors.

The idea that you have to practice for 10,000 hours before you’re an expert is just silly. You can master some things in a few weeks. Other things will take many years. In fact, you may never become an expert in some things. Not everyone can become a chess grandmaster, a concert violinist, or elite athlete even after years of practice (1). But, everyone can improve and enjoy the outcome of their efforts.    

Mistakes happen when you forget to self-regulate

Some mistakes happen because you did something incorrectly. You might add up some numbers and miss one. You might forget to add an ingredient to a recipe.

Some mistakes happen because you should’ve done something but didn’t. You might have forgotten to lock the car. Maybe you forgot to pack everything you needed for your holiday.

Forgetting to self-regulate and engage your executive functions can lead to mistakes. You might not plan ahead. You might do something impulsively. You might forget where you’re heading or fail to self-monitor. Failure to use any or all your executive functions can lead to mistakes.

What you can do

Some mistakes are pretty minor, like writing your name in the wrong box on a form – you can just erase it and start again. Other mistakes have big consequences, like not buckling your parachute before jumping out of an airplane. Consequences are important to consider when helping children. Most mistakes are ‘oops’ moments that should be treated like that. For other mistakes that might involve safety, you need to jump in right away and correct the situation.

Here are some things you can do to make mistakes into opportunities for learning:

1. Reduce the emotional impact of mistakes. Tell your child, “Mistakes tell us we’re learning. We need to practice many times* to make fewer mistakes.” Model making mistakes yourself – “Oops, I made a mistake, I must need more practice. Let me try that again.” Help take the shame out of making mistakes. Look at them as learning opportunities, not times to feel guilty or embarrassed. It’s time to buckle up and try again!

2. Make practice deliberate. Practicing isn’t must mindless repetition. It has to be purposeful and systematic. Have your child focus on the activity/task. Help them figure out how to make fewer errors – “Let’s put our brains in gear and try that really carefully again.”

3. Set reasonable goals. some people are simply gifted in an area – they learn quickly and easily. However, not all of us are gifted. Some people need more practice than others to reach high levels of expertise. Your goal may be just to make fewer mistakes. Help children set goals for the number of times (or amount of time) they’re going to practice*. Decide what improvement will look like – for example, I’ll … watch the football all the time we practice, read the directions before starting my homework, do five maths questions correctly, play 30 notes on the piano without a mistake. Hours of practice is not all it takes to become an expert. You have to face the fact that you may never become a world-class chess player, mathematician, musician, or sports star. But you can improve and may even enjoy some things more.

4. Engage executive functions. Sports researchers (2) find if you try many times and watch what happens (that is, self-monitor), you can get better and better. In terms of executive functions, that involves using inhibitory control (controlling how you do the activity) and self-monitoring (what happens when you do certain things). This connects what we did with what happened. Each time we try something, the results might be different. But, if we self-monitor, we can make fewer mistakes. The connection between what-I-did and what-happened goes into working memory and is more likely to become part of your memory bank.  

A great gift you can give to your child and yourself is to feel safe in making mistakes. Consider them as lessons about how to move along the path of learning and not stumbling blocks or objects of shame.   


A great gift you can give to your child and yourself is to feel safe in making mistakes. Consider them as lessons about how to move along the path of learning and not stumbling blocks or objects of shame.   

Mistakes are part of learning – see how computer games can teach us to deal with mistakes

* Some children prefer to have clear expectations so you may need to think of a specific number of times or amount of time for practice. For example, you might say, “You have to do that problem 25 times before your brain can learn it well.” or “You need to do that five times every day for three week before your brain can learn it well.” Be brave, choose a number. You can change it as your child progresses.

(1) Hambrick, D. Z., Burgoyne, A. P., Macnamara, B. N., & Ullén, F. (2018). Toward a multifactorial model of expertise: Beyond born versus made. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), 284–295.https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13586

(2) Howard, I. S., Wolpert, D. M., & Franklin, D. W. (2015). The Value of the Follow-Through Derives from Motor Learning Depending on Future Actions. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.037

Photo by Andre Guerra on Unsplash

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