Educational Strategies to Help Overcome the Fear of Mistakes

Educational Strategies to Overcome the Fear of Mistakes

By Sweta Asher, Instructional Coach, PEP Phoenix; and Sidney Sathre, Teacher Counselor, PEP Phoenix

Fear of Mistakes Looks Different Depending on Each Child

Kai hates to be wrong. Of course, no one likes to be wrong, but Kai really hates it — like, “turning over desks, swearing, and name calling” hates it. When he gets something wrong, even something small, it feels like validation that he is a failure.

Josiah, who is a kindergartener, hates failure, too. But instead of becoming destructive, he just runs out of class every day at the same time – 11:25 AM, every day – and doesn’t come back. He wanders around the halls and goes outside. He can’t even bear to stay in a classroom where he believes he won’t be successful.

Abigail isn’t a fan of making mistakes either. She’s a perfectionist and especially hates not getting it right when she is writing. When it’s time to write, she cries, throws shoes, and shouts things like, “I can’t do this!” and, “You can’t make me!”

These kids, and so many others at Positive Education Program, have had experiences earlier in their lives that made them feel less-than. They have not been successful in a traditional school setting. They have internalized what others have said about them: that they’re lazy, that they’re not smart, and that they don’t try. It’s not surprising then, that making mistakes is extremely difficult for them.

Fostering a Growth Mindset Philosophy

So, given that the learning process necessitates mistake-making, it takes a special approach to educate kids who feel extremely vulnerable when they are wrong. At PEP, we are keenly aware of this and are intentional about how we address it. Perhaps the most important thing we do in this regard is foster a growth mindset.

As described by its founder Carol Dweck, Ph.D., growth mindset is a way of thinking in which people believe their success depends on time and effort. Those who have a fixed mindset, on the other hand, believe their intelligence and talents are fixed. If someone with a fixed mindset isn’t good at something, they may believe they will never be good at it. Mistakes aren’t opportunities to grow, they’re proof of inadequacy. Those with a growth mindset believe their skills and intelligence can be improved through their own actions.

Putting Growth Mindset into Practice

So, how do we reinforce the notion that our PEP kids can improve their performance with time and effort? It’s a continual process throughout the day, but there are several things we routinely do.

As educators, we know that mistakes are an important part of the learning process. To reinforce this idea, we often remind kids before a lesson starts that it might be challenging and that mistakes are okay. We tell them their brains are going to get bigger when they make mistakes.

One of our favorite tactics is using a white board. Instead of starting out with a piece of paper, which feels permanent, we start with a white board and are always singing out, “Erase! Erase! Erase!” Mistakes feel much easier when you can just erase them.

These tactics were particularly successful with Kai. In the past, after making a mistake he would blow up. There was no hope of him returning to a lesson once it had happened. Now, he is doing much better at managing his reactions and even returns to lessons.

Make it Fun to Minimize Fear of Mistakes

It sounds obvious, but if you can make learning fun, it can be easier to encourage kids to stay engaged – even kids who fear making mistakes. When Josiah would run outside, I would go with him and turn our lessons into games. I would say, “Josiah, I see you pushing those chairs into a line. How many chairs are in that line?” Pretty soon, he was pushing chairs into a line and counting them! And because it was fun, he was able to stay engaged and master a skill without even realizing. It deepened his understanding of the concept being studied – counting!

Relationship Building

It may not sound like a tactic directed at minimizing fear of mistakes, but at PEP, thanks to our foundational Re-ED philosophy, we know that relationships matter. When students are comfortable with the adults around them, it feels safer for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Abigail benefited tremendously from her relationship with her teacher-counselors. Of course, there is a lot that goes into building a trusting relationship, but our attention to her strengths and frequently noticing the positives were critical in helping her overcome her fears. Once she felt comfortable with the adults around her, she liked coming to school and even enjoyed her writing assignments!


Mistakes are inevitable. They are a necessary part of the learning process, both in school and in life. Young people who struggle with the fear of making mistakes or with perfectionism can miss out on important lessons if they don’t have the social or emotional skills to handle being wrong.

At PEP, many of the young people who come through our doors are so afraid of being wrong, that it is hard for them to learn. They are accustomed to failure and to the voices of those who don’t believe in them. They believe their efforts are fruitless.

Our experience, though, tells us otherwise. Once these young people have acquired the social and emotional skills they need to cope with their fear of mistakes, they begin to flourish. Kai, Josiah, and Abigail are just three examples of the success we see when the right supports are in place and young people receive the programming they need. For these young people, and hundreds of others, PEP provides the environment needed to allow this success.

Sweta Asher
Sidney Sathre