Helping a Child Rebound After a Mistake

Children, even the best of them, make a lot of mistakes. That’s the nature of childhood. As a teacher, it’s your responsibility to help them recover from their errors and grow from them.

A child needs your help to bounce back after a mistake and learn from it.It’s too easy to allow a mistake to become the defining moment of a child’s academic and social experience. The trouble is that no matter how far the event fades into the past, it never really goes away for them.

You have the unique ability to help them put their mistake into the proper context and learn from it. In essence, you can help the child to be new again.

Understanding why children take mistakes so hard

The resilience people need to bounce back from mistakes grows over time. As we all age, and as life “happens” more and more to us, we begin to realize mistakes are a natural part of being a person, and we don’t take them so hard.

This isn’t the case for a child.

Their first experience — positive or negative — is filled with incredible power and emotion. Remember this when working with a child who has erred. The shame and pain they feel is deep and cutting. Your compassion, and kind words, will be of incredible help and comfort.

Speaking the truth

Eventually, you’ll have a child arrive on your doorstep who has a terrible reputation. Academic difficulty, poor attitude or disagreeable actions have preceded their arrival, and you’ve been bracing for this moment.

Do you get tough? Do you “send a message” early?

Rest assured the child expects such a reaction, because it happens to them all the time with adults. Instead, turn the dynamic around. Invite the child to your room and tell them, carefully and kindly, what you’ve heard about their reputation. Emphasize that the only thing that will drive your opinion will be their actions, not their reputation. Remind them that you’re on their side and that you’ll do whatever you can to help.

Addressing the group

A whole grade level, as hard as it may be to imagine, may also struggle with attitude and reputation. If you’re in a leadership position, hold the same conversation with the entire grade. Offer them advice on how they should act and provide options and alternatives for their behavior choices.

Work with class leaders to create positive and pro-social activities, and celebrate when good decisions are made. The attitude of a whole group can be changed. It just takes appropriate pressure and time.

Lightening up

No matter how much you want your students to make good decisions, you don’t want to be their drill sergeant. Just be yourself, verbalize support and act the same way, laugh at yourself a bit, and keep the classroom setting as light as possible.

It’s not a circus in there, but many “trouble” students respond well to teachers that treat them humanely with humor and compassion.

Smoothing over issues with social groups

Some students are trying to reinvent themselves after burning social bridges with grade-level peers. Whether the problem is annoying, disagreeable behavior or awkward interactions, some students just can’t catch a break.

Invite them into your room to enjoy lunch with fellow students who are in for extra help. Encourage simple and engaging conversations, and ask them to join school groups that foster social interactions.

The best piece of advice for socially struggling students is to have them “go where the good people are” — student council, social justice groups and any school group that encourages service to others. Usually the most patient, kind, and welcoming students are members.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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