Getting It Wrong

I always cringe just a little when the caller ID reads “Public School” in the middle of the day. No matter what the reason for the call, it means that my day is about to be rearranged. This particular call was no different.
“I’m trying to give Patch his reading test, but he is just sitting there not working. Can you come down?” My heart sank. It was one of many interactions with Patch’s teacher. She was trying her best to help my son. We’d attempted several strategies to help him engage more, participate more, and get his work done in school hours. Yet here we were, faced with a state mandated test. He’d passed it with flying colors in the fall. I knew he could pass it again, but not if he wouldn’t pick up his pencil.
“Yes I’ll come.” I answered and then rearranged my day. While I was at it, I also rearranged the following day. It was time for me to observe Patch in his classroom. We needed better solutions and, to figure out what they might be, I needed more information.

I had a lot of information already, of course. I’d been observing the teacher since September. I’d paid attention every time I was in the classroom. I watched Patch do his homework. I sat with him every time he brought home unfinished class work. Like Patch’s teacher, I’d watched him gradually freeze up and lose confidence. In the face of a question for which he did not know the answer, he would stop. I began to recognize that he was terrified of getting things wrong. He was also not asking questions if he was confused. Speaking up is hard for Patch, particularly when it will focus group attention on him. I think it ties back to his fear of getting things wrong.

I walked into Patch’s class. He sat alone at his desk. All his classmates were gathered on the floor for a group activity. Patch looked up at me with wet eyes. The teacher kindly and wisely moved all the rest of the class into the music room to practice for an upcoming performance. Patch and I had a private space. I had to begin with scolding. When a child reaches the point where a parent has to be called down, scolding is in order. Three sentences later, Patch slumped into a repentant heap on his desk. It was enough. He knew he’d made a poor choice, so I gave him the opportunity to make a right one.
“I have to be here and you have to take this test. For every minute that I have to sit here and you don’t work, we’ll have a consequence at home. If you keep working, you can avoid adding to your consequence.”

Patch picked up his pencil and the work began. I could not give him answers, but I could repeat the things I’d been saying at home for weeks. “If you don’t know the answer, skip it and move on. Come back to it later.” “Keep your pencil moving.” Patch did keep working. I watched him when the work was smooth. I saw his forehead crinkle when he was confused. But he kept working, right up until he finished and went back to the skipped questions.
“I don’t know how to answer this!” he pleaded. It was a question asking his opinion on a story character. I could tell the question was not looking for a specific answer, but was just checking to see if he had focused on the story enough to pull details from it.
I looked into Patch’s eyes and said “Then get it wrong. Write something about her pink elephant.”
Patch looked at me confused. “She doesn’t have an elephant.”
“Okay. Write something about her purple balloon. Or pick something that is actually in the story. Just read the question and write the first answer you think of. Don’t try to figure out if it is the best possible answer. Just get it wrong and move on.”
Patch looked at me for a long minute, then turned and began to write.

Get it wrong and move on.
Sometimes there is no perfect answer. Sometimes I am exactly like Patch in this. I plan ahead. I study all the angles. I fret about all the repercussions, trying to see how this small decision will fork into future possibilities. But sometimes the right answer is any answer. I need to get it wrong and move on. There is almost always a chance to fix it later.

Patch got his answer right. Once he stopped being so afraid of getting things wrong, he knew which words needed to be on the page. He finished that test in the allowed time. More important, he worked without stopping. We walked out of the school triumphant. Instead of continuing to wallow in misery I was able to praise his efforts.

The next day I observed his class at the invitation of his teacher. He had a pretty good day, possibly because I was there. Watching him reassured me that much of the time he was fairly happy at school. There were just these spots which were hard on both him and the teacher. By the end of the day my subconscious had absorbed enough information to toss out an idea. I shared it with the teacher and she agreed it sounded good.

I made a bingo card for Patch. The squares say things like “I raised my hand to give an answer” and “I worked during all of the assigned time.” When Patch does one of these tasks, he brings his bingo card to his teacher and she signs the square. The central square is the one that Patch is allowed to award to himself. It reads “I told myself ‘I can do this.'” Three in a row earns him a treat when he comes home. A black out of all nine squares earns him a big treat. The bingo card gives Patch small things he can be doing to stay engaged in class. He remains focused on the things he can do. It also gives the teacher several chances to interact positively and praise Patch throughout the day.

The day I was called in was last Wednesday. Today was Parent Teacher Conferences. Instead of having a concerned conversation about how to help him, the teacher and I were able to share smiles about how well things are going. This was our third attempt at helping Patch. Looks like we finally have the right answer. Either that, or Patch just solved the problem for himself. Doesn’t matter. “Get it wrong and move on” has brought us to a good place.

26 thoughts on “Getting It Wrong”

  1. That was amazing. What an amazing mom you are. And what a great teacher your son has to allow him the time he needs to get work done – and to recognize when he needs help from home.

    1. We are really fortunate with this teacher and this school. My biggest stress in the whole situation was being afraid that his not getting work done was going to jeopardize his ability to stay in his current program.

    1. “Hold On to Your Horses” already has a sequel half written in my head. It is different than this. But you’re right that this experience could be adapted into another children’s book. *Goes off to scribble notes*

  2. That WAS amazing. That the teacher would violate the regs on a state mandated test, that a mom would help with answers on it (“Then get it wrong. Write something about her pink elephant.”) and be proud of it… truly amazing. I’m glad they have worked out a plan and that it is working. Good thing his IEP allows extra time.

    1. I feel I need to clarify because this is the internet where sometimes things are blown out of proportion.

      This particular test is often administered by volunteers, so the fact of me sitting next to him was not completely outside guidelines. The test is not timed. Our time constraint was “let’s get this done before school is over.” My suggestions were more to help jostle him out of his standard way of thinking than to actually give him answers. What he wrote for his answer was far more appropriate to the test than pink elephants.

      That said, you are right. It is the mark of a good educator that Patch’s teacher was more focused on helping him break through and learn than on her standard procedures for test administration. She is a good woman.

  3. Sandra, love this post. My six children are all raised now, but I remember those days and the challenge of understanding how best to help the child who was struggling.

    And I love the lesson for myself.

  4. I needed this today. Thank you! It’s been 16 years and my son is still struggling to learn this lesson. He is gifted, but an extreme perfectionist, and it halts him in making an effort. If he can’t do it perfectly, he won’t do it, and my brilliant son is failing classes. Thank you for the encouragement. “Get it wrong and move on” may be a new motto for us.

    1. I think it is a really hard one to internalize. As far as I’m concerned if my son learns nothing else this year, but he gets this, we’ve had a really great educational year.

      It is really hard for intuitive, quick-thinking people to believe in the power of revision. Their instinct is to make one big effort and be done rather than to refine and repeat. I speak from long experience here. I’m only starting to comprehend the power of “Do a little every day.”

  5. Sandra, that is a marvelous account. What a wonderful experience for you and Patch. Some of the things I love the most about this story:
    *The teacher understands that this is about educating a child, not being a stickler for often arbitrary regulations. Right? I mean seriously– if the focus is on fulfilling a state reg for ANY reason rather than on helping a child learn, then it’s a failure.
    *The teacher and you obviously have a very good, interactive, mutually respectful relationship. Good on the teacher and good on you.
    *Patch will never doubt your love and devotion to him. You won Mom.

    I admit I got a bit teary. Thanks!

  6. Very nice, I will be sharing this with the wife. We have a very spirited 6 year old that needs to learn this as well.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful retelling. I taught 7th grade before I was married, and now I teach Primary at church. I had an incident last year that I felt might relate to Patch’s problem. We were learning to listen to the still small voice, and the manual suggested playing “telephone” where someone whispers to the next, and we all laugh at how the message changes. One of my 5 year-olds couldn’t figure out how to play, and refused to say anything unless she got it perfect. After class, I spoke to her mother, worried that if she does nothing unless it’s perfect, she will have a hard time ahead in school. So now their family plays “telephone” for family home evening, exactly so that they can enjoy the mistakes.

    I agree, we need to embrace our imperfections and enjoy the opportunity to be human and fallible.

  8. I have a saying, “Make a decision and then make it right!” Sometimes that’s the best or only thing you can do!

  9. As a member of the educational establishment (although at the far end — I teach graduate students), I think we owe you and Patch an apology for somehow making him think that all questions have one and only one right answer, and that getting the correct answer is more important than anything else. “Get it wrong and move on” is a great answer, especially when we’re doing research — where no one knows the right answers, and sometimes we don’t even know the right questions, yet. But that’s all beside the point.

    I just wanted to say that I am proud to know you, even through this rather distant connection. Thanks for a very uplifting tale!

    1. I’ve spent some time pondering where his fear of being wrong came from. I was worried that somehow I’d taught it to him. But I think it has roots in his natural aversion to disappointing people. He wants those around him to be pleased.

      You’re welcome. Glad you found the tale uplifting.

  10. We homeschool but had the exact same issue come up with each one of our kids at different stages, the fear of getting something wrong. After reading this study from Stanford ( about how praising intelligence vs praising effort can undermine children’s motivations, we tried to put that into action.

    We shifted from rewarding performance to rewarding effort, even going as far as giving a small piece of candy for wrong answers as long as you could prove that you tried your best. (At first I was afraid this would be exploited to earn extra candy, but it never was). I don’t think they actually cared about the candy, they just wanted validation that their effort had been accepted.

    We also looked for ways to allow them to occasionally check their own work. Often fear of failure was really just came down to embarrassment or fear of disappointing us.

    Finally, we have been trying to teach the idea that the entire purpose of testing is just to see what we don’t know yet. It isn’t an assessment of our intelligence, or an assessment of our character, just another tool to figure out what we still need to learn. We all start out knowing nothing, and we each acquire knowledge at different paces.

    These shifts in thinking took time for me, as I’m very much a results-driven person. The slogan you used with Patch, “Get it wrong and move on” sounds like a great motto to sum this all up, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Thank you for the link to the original Stanford study. I read a New York Times article that told about it several years ago and it completely altered the way I parent. I wish that article were required reading for all parents and teachers.

      Excellent thoughts. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for this post. I have a six year old daughter (my oldest of 4 children)who has very similar struggles and because she hates getting things wrong she doesn’t get anything right because she freezes up. I appreciate your post for knowing I am not the only parent going through this and my child is not the only one who has this problem (something I knew but it’s nice to have confirmation). I really needed to read this right now. It’s been a struggle for me.

  12. My son and I have gone through similar struggles ever since 1st grade. We’re halfway through 4th grade and are barely making some serious progress. While it’s true that my son has some special needs that have severely complicated his schooling issues, sometimes it is this EXACT thing that trips him up. He’s terrified of choosing wrong. He MUST be meticulous in all he does. He doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe I need to take a page from you and just let him know that sometimes we need to just “get it wrong and move on.”

    I remember hearing you talk about this at LTUE this year and I wrote it down in big letters on my notepad. Not just for my son. For me. Thank you.

  13. This is exactly what I needed to hear for me today. I’ve let myself get frozen up in an I-don’t-want-to-mess-it-up ice cube. I need to remember to forge ahead and I can always learn from the experience and fix it later.


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