Building Brain Habits: Learning from Mistakes

This is the second post in a new series by our founder, Nancy Rowe. Read the first post here.

Katie was well-behaved in class but struggling when it came to school work. At 7 years old, she was unable to complete assignments accurately and on time and had a hard time learning and remembering concepts. Her first grade teacher was unable to motivate Katie and advised her parents to seek additional support. What was the source of Katie’s struggle? What does it take to motivate and engage a student like Katie?

In my office, Katie was talkative and engaged in the NeuroNet writing and computer exercises. She appeared less comfortable during the movement exercises. At one point I asked her to put a yoga mat on the floor and complete five front rolls (somersaults), one by one, on the mat. Here's what happened:

Katie took the mat and put it down very close to a small table.  She did one front roll on the mat and bumped her heels on the small table. 

She stood up, her face crumpling, and looked at me. I knew she was not hurt. I said, with a smile, “That was one, now four more.”  Her face changed from hurt to puzzled. 

She went back for a second front roll and bumped her heels again. 

Once more, her face crumpled, but I said, “That was two, now three more.” She went back to the mat.

At this point Katie’s parents, who had been observing in the room, were looking a little bit angry.

Katie tried a third time, and again bumped her heels against the table.  This time her face didn’t crumple.  She stood up, looked at me, and said,  “I don’t know why I keep bumping my feet on the table.”  And I replied, “I was wondering that myself.”   

In this important moment, Katie realized that I was giving her this task because I believed she could do it.  She took ownership of the problem when she wondered “why.”  I wanted her to own not just the problem but also the solution.  I wanted Katie to see herself as a problem-solver, and to look for ways to solve her own problem so I waited...

Then Katie said, “Maybe I should move the mat.” She was still looking for my help! I just smiled and said, “Give it a try!”

Katie pulled the mat away from the table, completed a third front roll, without bumping her feet, and stood up. 

How do you think her face looked? 


Not only was she successful, but she had become empowered to self-evaluate: first to realize she wasn’t really hurt, then to realize it was her job to keep trying, and finally to look for the solution to the problem. By learning from her mistakes, she could then predict she would be successful for the remaining two front rolls.


In the NeuroNet program, we say that self-evaluation is the key to motivation.  In other words, when children feel empowered to do meaningful work and feel the satisfaction of a job well done, then they develop the ability to evaluate their work.  They also develop the sense of obligation to complete it. More importantly, they develop the understanding that self-evaluation is a part of their job in daily living.

On the other hand, as a result of struggling without success, students like Katie don’t predict that hard work will be rewarded and they lose motivation.

When Katie finished her successful front rolls, I looked at her parents.  They had seen their child beaming, ready and eager to go back and do something which she had not wanted to do. They too had a new vision of what their child could do and how she could learn. 

The Hidden Message of Helping

When we as parents or teachers constantly tell children what to do, we are indirectly teaching them that it’s our job to tell them what to do, instead of their job to tell themselves what to do. The hidden message of helping is: “I’m helping you because you need help.” And the hidden message of NOT helping is: “I’m sure you can solve your problem yourself.”

One of the most difficult parts of my job is empowering parents to let their children fail, to learn from their mistakes, to try again, and to experience the self-confidence and the joy of struggling to success.

Have you seen success after allowing your child learn from his mistakes? Share your experience in the comments below. 


StepUp Summary
StepUp to Learn helps children develop fluency in reading decoding, handwriting, and math-fact retrieval. When these basic  skills are not fluent, the greater demands on a child’s working memory may lead to poor academic performance or behavior problems. StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum and can be used as an intervention for struggling learners.
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