Children Learn Better when allowed to Correct their own Mistakes

By Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.

Although most experts in the field don’t believe very young children demonstrate executive functions, I have noticed that very young children, including infants and toddlers, demonstrate a remarkable emerging ability to concentrate, focus their attention, persist and manage their impulses — when conditions are right.

When my colleague, Deborah Silvis, and I observed the environment and the adults to understand what made this possible, we identified 7 inter-related keys that seemed to support the development of these critical brain functions and behaviors for life success.  One of these keys was allowing young children to learn from their own mistakes.


  • Make it possible for young children to do as much as possible on their own, recognizing that they will learn best through their own experience.
  • Help no more and no less than is needed– just enough so the children can do a lot of the work on their own.
  • Maintain awareness of when adult presence and “help” serve a child as opposed to when it is demotivating or intrusive.  You wouldn’t do your best learning or work if someone stood over you prepared to correct you at every moment!
  • Break tasks down into small enough steps that the young child could gain greater mastery over time.
  • Collaborate and scaffold– the adult does a little and the child does a little.
  • Allow children to experience natural consequences of their actions — within reason.
  • Show an accepting stance toward mistakes—“that’s okay—I will show you how to clean that up,” modeling fallibility and taking a “watch and wait” approach rather than swooping in to fix or correct a mistake themselves.

Common approaches to young children which seem to interfere with young children’s emerging capability and self-reliance.  

  • Do everything for them.
  • Don’t help enough—materials that don’t fit small hands or failing to break tasks down in smaller steps.
  • Rush children– they need more time to get things done.
  • Hover or swoop in to “help” when helping is actually interfering with learning.
  • Punish or scold for errors.
  • Fret over errors, spills, mistakes, e.g. “Oh no! You spilled! Let me clean that up!”

CONCLUSION. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, but we often behave as if they are something to fear and to hide.  That’s not good for our ongoing growth and development and it may be particularly important to resist this when raising young children.

When adults allow young children to learn from their own mistakes, young children learn more and develop greater self-motivation and self-control. They engage more actively in their learning and step up to do for themselves, developing ever greater skills and competencies. They attempt multiple ways of correcting their own errors and learn from the consequences of their own actions.  These skills provide the foundations for personal responsibility, problem-solving, and self-control which they will build upon for the rest of their lives.  They develop a greater sense of agency, seeing themselves as the directors of their own learning and adults as sources of help, care, and interaction.

What can YOU do differently to give the young children you care for the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes?

If you would like to talk more about how you can help your child, or children in your care, to follow their natural learning instincts and become their most brilliant selves, give me a call at headshot pretty smile 2013

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