No matter what people may say - we ALL make mistakes and fail! We also all struggle at times to even attempt to engage with tasks that we think we may get wrong or be unable to do. These fears and worries can be especially strong if the activity/task is in front of an audience. As a consequence we may withdraw from such situations or avoid them entirely for fear of embarrassment. I would still rather avoid some situations for fear of making a mistake, for example, public speaking – no thank you! I know this is because I still vividly remember a French class when I offered an answer to a question, the teacher sniggered at my (mis)pronunciation. I shrunk red faced into my seat and I thought “well I am not doing that again”. However, I do speak in public, leading training for example, I still find it nerve wracking but I put some strategies in place to manage my fear of making a mistake and embarrassment and I quite enjoy it.
Some children and young people really struggle to manage mistakes and/or failure or potential failure which can impact on their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and learning and can ultimately lead to underperformance. In addition, worry about mistakes/failure can impact on feelings of self-worth and feelings of competence as a learner.
As in my experience it may be that making a mistake is related to a particular incident, however, it can also be related to pressures to achieve/perform, finding something difficult which makes the task challenging or fear of the uncertainty that some tasks present.
What does a fear of mistakes look like?
A fear of mistakes can present in many different ways, including, for example:
Appearing unmotivated or passive. They may say for example, “I don’t want to” or “I can’t be bothered”.
Attempting to avoid tasks by distracting the adult/peers around them through chatting or other behaviours such as going to the toilet, sorting their pencils/books etc.
Trying to exert some control over the situation themselves, perhaps by attempting to negotiate how much they will do, where they will start or deciding to complete the task how they would like.
Strong emotional responses, be it, shutting down or getting upset and stating, for example, “I am never going to get it right”, “I’ll get it wrong and will get told off”, or “I don’t want to look stupid”. They may quietly refuse to engage, appearing defiant and challenging and may for example push the work away.
Demonstrating an automatic negative response. As an adult said to me “I hadn’t even shown her the work and she said ‘I can’t do it’”.
Spending a long time correcting and re-correcting their work and as such struggling to finish tasks. Some students can spend such a long time studying for tests for fear of getting something wrong they may stop engaging in activities with friends/family and their studying may impact on their sleep and appetite.
All of the above responses can in turn provoke negative adult responses of frustration/exasperation which can in turn feed into feelings of low self-worth for the child/young person.
I was asked for involvement to provide strategies to support Mo in class because his class teacher and his Mum were worried that he often refused to engage with class work. Mo’s Mum described Mo as a perfectionist and felt he was reluctant to try to anything that may lead to failure.
I met with Mo and observed him in class, it was evident from review of Mo’s books and his oral responses that he had a good understanding of the subjects however he struggled to record his work and appeared to have developed an automatic negative response to anything that involved ‘writing’. On observation, Mo needed a high level of adult support and scaffolding to write and appeared quite passive. It was noticeable his demeanour was very different in maths, he was significantly more active and engaged. Mo told me that he hates writing as he is left handed and does not like cursive writing as it smudges.
I felt fear of mistakes was a key factor in Mo’s presentation in the classroom and that it was likely a combination of factors that contributed to Mo’s negative response to tasks involving writing including that he dislikes writing and how his writing looks and that writing tasks may feel open ended without clear/definitive expectations and therefore have a potential for failure. In contrast to writing, maths has definite answers and expectations and as such may feel safer and less risky than writing tasks for Mo.
Top Tips for managing a fear of failure/making mistakes
Be a mistake role model!
Next time you make a mistake, such as forgetting and burning toast, getting in the wrong lane when driving or misspelling in an email or text - model a calm response, state that you have made a mistake and that you are fine.
When you catch yourself not wanting to do something because you feel you will fail (even though you think you would like to and might achieve or enjoy it), for example, entering a cake in the village fete, joining a half marathon or applying for a different job or promotion – share your own worries and fears and listen to the reassurance you get from your nearest and dearest.
Develop a Boast Book/Golden Folder with examples of work/achievements, photos of enjoyment and engagement, certificates, staff, carer and peer compliments so that the child/young person can see they have enjoyed engaging and trying and can achieve positive results.
Develop a strategy card together to share before tasks, for example:
‘if I think I can’t do it I will try … to do one question, ask for help, look at my Boast book and then try…’.
Similarly, a social story may be helpful, for example, Carol Gray provides an example in ‘Carol Gray’s New Social Story Book’:
126. That’s Great! What to Do with Mistakes on Schoolwork
Carol Gray emphasizes the importance of customizing Social Stories™ with a child’s personal experiences as such it will be important to develop personalised social stories. For further detail regarding social stories refer to: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/
When tackling tasks - acknowledge they find it difficult and will need to be brave. Encourage positive self talk, for example practice with them: I can do it, I am confident, I am capable. Share examples of when they have done it/have been confident for example in the Boast Book to reinforce the positive statements.
After they have engaged in something they find difficult - provide positive feedback – state what you are praising them for, for example:
‘That was brilliant, I am so proud of you, swimming is difficult and you tried everything the teacher asked’
Help develop an awareness of competence
If a task is new/novel or potentially challenging – warn them, reassure them. Model the task or try to simplify the task and focus on one part of the task at a time. It can be helpful to state explicitly what the focus is – is it spelling, presentation or comprehension for example. If possible use checklists, mindful of reading ability.
Where possible begin tasks by ensuring success. For example, if the task is learning spellings start by trying spellings they know/you know they are confident to try. Or, if for example, they fear making mistakes in the school play, practice lines/songs they know.
If the task is long - for example, the child/young person has a list of calculations to complete it can be helpful to cover part of the page so that they can focus on a few at a time or alternatively provide markers/pointers to show where they need to get to in a particular length of time. For example, use a green dot to show where to start and a red dot where they need to get up to before a specific time/sharing with an adult. Keep the gap small and readily achievable to begin with then you can gradually extend. Involve them – ask them to set their own markers/timers.
Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into recognising and managing fear of failure or making mistakes, I hope the tips are useful.
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