When Kids Make Mistakes

I noticed the doodle around 9:30.  Three big rings of pencil on one of the kids’ tables that weren’t there when school started an hour ago.  I had one student who sat at that table and had been having a tough time that morning, so I figured it might have been him.  Another teacher who works in my classroom asked him if he had made the marks, and he said no.

When I think back to being a kid, I have sharp memories just like this.  Of times when I was accused of something and, on impulse, lied.  That first denial, that tiniest, littlest lie, slips out so quickly.  And before you know it, you’ve planted your feet on the ground.  You’ve told a lie, and now you have to stick by it or else be found out as the person who did the wrong thing and then lied about it.

It makes sense why kids do this.  Being accused of something is an intensely stressful experience.  Think back when it’s happened to you.  If you were like me as a kid, your face would turn bright red, your heart would pound, and your hands would shake.  That’s a “fight-or-flight” moment for sure.  And we know that the stress in those moments impairs the function of our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive thought and complex decision-making.  I think that in those moments, kids lie on impulse, as a reflex, not because they have made a careful and calculated decision to lie.  And I remember from being a kid that the moment after you’ve lied, the moment when sense returns to your brain, you wish you hadn’t.  You wish you could take it back.  But by then, its too late.

This is the point when many adults make a huge mistake.  Instead of reducing the child’s stress, they increase it.  They confront the child further, and most kids respond by digging in their heels.  It becomes a battle of “you did this,” “no I didn’t,” “yes you did.”  And it only ends when the teacher gives a consequence, sometimes double the consequence for lying.

But what do we really want from kids in these situations?  We want them to accept responsibility, apologize, and fix their mistake.  So why don’t we make this easier for them?

Back to my classroom at 9:30, to the pencil rings on the table, and to the 7-year-old who has denied drawing them.  As the class began eating snack, I said something like, “You guys know that everyone makes mistakes.  Adults, kids, everyone.  And when you make a mistake, what feels best is being able to fix it.”  There’s lots of agreement, and we talk for a minute about times when we have gotten to fix a mistake and felt better.

“Someone made a mistake in our classroom this morning and drew on one of the tables.  It’s not a big deal, and it’s easy to fix.  I’m not mad at all, and I’m not looking to punish anybody.  But I do think that if you did it and you tell me, you’ll feel a lot better.  And you’ll get to fix your mistake by cleaning the table, which feels best of all.  So when you have a chance, if you want to fix your mistake, come chat with me one-on-one.”  And everyone went back to eating.  Seconds later, I see my friend, the one who had denied drawing the doodle, go to get wipes to wipe it from the table. As he walked to his seat, I bent down to talk with him.  “I did it, Mrs. Fox,” he said.  “No worries,” I replied, “thanks for telling me.”

I have used this language many, many times to help students tell the truth.  I carefully avoid getting into “student vs. teacher” power struggles with kids and instead, work to provide students with another way out.  Often, when I know a student has done something, I say, before they have a chance to deny it, “Before you say anything, I want you to remember that everyone makes mistakes.  It’s ok.  We can fix mistakes.  Now, take a moment and think: do you think you might have made a mistake at recess today?”

By reducing children’s stress in these situations, we give them the opportunity to tell the truth, fix their mistake, and move on without guilt.  We model forgiveness, teach problem-solving strategies, and demonstrate to children that no matter what they do, no matter what mistakes they make, we are always on their side.

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One thought on “When Kids Make Mistakes

  1. Too many times teachers are quick to fire in these situations. Thank you for giving an excellent way for providing a teachable moment for kids by reducing stress. There are too many kids these days on the defensive and aren’t given the “out”.

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