In my work with my students, it’s really essential to me to also create a relaxed, playful environment. And a big part of this is how I handle it when students make mistakes. I create a growth-oriented environment by asking very specific questions which support their mastery process. Here are four simple ways that you can also respond to your kid’s mistakes in a positive way that will really support their long-term mastery.
4 Ways to Respond to A Math Mistake
1) Let Your Kid Know They Did Something Wrong
Don’t be afraid to let your kid know that they did something wrong when you’re working through math together. When we’re learning, it’s super important to get feedback as to whether or not we’re on the right track or off the rails!
Keep it lighthearted and matter-of-fact. It’s no big deal. There is no sense of failure or punishment. You’re just giving them feedback – it is just information.
A lot of times I will say, “Actually, no” if a student makes a mistake, or just say, “No,” with a smile.
You can also use a question to direct them to re-do a step. Like if you see them write out “7+7=15,” you can say, “What is 7+7?” I probably use this one most of all.
2) If They Don’t Know, Ask Them To Find It
If they don’t know they made a mistake, or you’re not sure if they know there was a mistake, ask them to find the mistake. Invite them to locate it.
I prefer to use the specific wording, “Where’s the mistake?” Or, “OK, where’s the mistake?” as opposed to “Can you find the mistake?” (I wouldn’t be asking them if I didn’t believe they could.)
3) If They Do Know, Ask Them What It Was
If they know they made a mistake, ask them, “What’s the mistake?” to invite them to tell you exactly what it was. Invite them to analyze it.
Routinely analyzing one’s mistakes helps you raise your awareness and increase your odds of not making the same mistake next time.
A lot of times a kid will exclaim, “Oh, I understand what I did wrong!” once you’ve started to re-do a problem that they originally did incorrectly, and this question is a great way to invite them to really break down exactly what happened.
4) Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Mistakes
Research has shown that if we don’t talk to kids about their mistakes and failures, kids internalize the message that they have done something so shameful it can’t even be spoken about. (Even though this usually is just an unintentional byproduct of adults not knowing what to say, or not wanting to “make the kid feel bad.”)
If the student hasn’t already been asked to do this for school, you can invite them to analyze their errors by making a log where they identify the error, analyze why it happened, and correct it. Just like analyzing it verbally, this really gives the student the opportunity to reflect, increase their awareness, and not make the same mistake next time.
Just be sure to keep it lighthearted – it’s not a chore or a punishment, it’s just an opportunity for further insight and growth.
If talking to your kid about their math mistakes seems overwhelming, just start using one of these steps to begin. As long as you’re lighthearted and matter-of-fact, you’ll be helping your kid develop their capacity to reflect and analyze and think critically about their own work, which is a major life meta-skill that goes way beyond math!
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About the Author
As a math mastery mentor and joyful learning expert, Rebecca Zook has over thirteen years of experience as a thought leader on the cutting edge of math education. In her one-on-one math mentoring programs, Rebecca teaches creative, passionate, visionary, unique kids from around the world who are freaking out, failing, or secretly crying themselves to sleep over math how to cultivate a growth mindset, transcend the system, and achieve true math mastery.