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Why is my child not learning from their mistakes?

Do you find that you are repeating yourself and using the phrase “I just told you that a few minutes ago!” or “Why didn't you listen?” or “Don’t you learn from your mistakes?!”

Often our neurodivergent children who have Autism, ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) or another developmental delay are faced with being told they are wrong a lot of the time. This leads to... the failure cycle

Other children aren’t learning the same way as our kiddo’s learn. This means they won’t necessarily learn from their mistakes or naturally occurring consequences. One reason for this is because children are acting with impulse. They hear, see or think of something and they do it. This is an AMAZING quality in some situations. It means our children are action takers, leaders and ‘doers’. But, this can lead to a lot of frustration and stress for parents and the child especially while the beneficial side of these qualities are being pruned. Impulsive actions are often emotional responses that aren’t appropriate, are over the top or hurtful to others.

Remember that your child isn’t behaving in this way because they are vindictive or want to intentionally hurt you or make you sad, angry or annoyed. Rather, your child is likely responding to the environment in the best way that they know, to get something they want (items, entertainment, attention) or escape something they don’t like (this even includes escaping negative feelings such as frustration).

With the negative experiences of being told off, yelled at, being told that they aren’t doing things in the right way etc... our children can easily feel defeated and deflated. They keep making errors because their brain is wired differently and they aren’t learning in the same way others do from errors.

Making an error doesn’t teach you WHAT to do next time.

These experiences can lead children down the path of ceasing to try. Through their eyes, they are often trying to do something, failing and continuing to do it wrong, so why even try? Children can start to resist doing anything that they think they will fail at, therefore leading to a fear of failure and increased behaviors when they are presented with a task that they are unsure of or don’t know how to do. I see children who I know have the skills to do what is asked of them, but kick up a fuss and resist because the task is boring or doesn’t bring them the outcome they want.

I find this heartbreaking because our kiddo’s have so much potential. They are intelligent, loving and thoughtful but get bogged down in the failure cycle. We know that they can learn SO much from failure and persisting through something that’s not working. This builds strong character and resilience. But our kiddo’s are just getting shut down too often and don’t get a chance to see the success that can come out of the failures.

So, how do we change this cycle of failure?

Firstly, I’m going to get a bit technical. When we look at how and why behaviors change, one of the major influencing factors is reinforcement. Reinforcement isn’t bribing, reinforcement isn’t coercion and it’s not just about getting a candy reward after cleaning up.

Reinforcement is ANYTHING that occurs after a behavior, that increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again in the future. If the behavior doesn’t increase in the future, then reinforcement isn’t happening. When a behavior gets you the outcome you want (this includes internal satisfaction such as feeling happy), your behavior has been reinforced and you are likely to do the same behavior in the future for the same or similar outcome.

e.g. I explain to my boss that I’m highly stressed and ask for a day off → my boss gives me a day off. My behavior of asking my boss was reinforced, so I’m more likely to do this in the future.

In contrast, if I ask for a day off and my boss says “Who do you think you are? It’s the busiest time of year, we are all stressed. Of course you can’t take the day off” → you are not likely to ask for a day off any time soon.

Now, for an example related to our kids: e.g. Ava loves building Minecraft Lego with her sister. Her parents have set up the expectation that she can play after dinner. She follows the dinner rules - sitting at the table, eating with utensils → and then she can play Lego.

Throughout dinner time Ava's parents give her positive praise for the specific skills they want her to show. They might even have to bring her back to sit at the table, but as soon as she sits she gets praised for this and told that first follow dinner rules, then Lego.

In this situation Ava has had a positive experience that involved her parents helping her to display the correct skill rather than being yelled at for not sitting at the table. Ava’s behavior of following dinner rules received reinforcement. Therefore, in the same or similar situation she is more likely to follow the rules.

For our children on the spectrum or with ADHD or ODD, they have had so many experiences where they have tried to do something and they did it wrong. This hasn’t happened on a few occasions, this has happened repetitively year after year. Of course they are going to feel deflated! Their behavior didn’t get reinforced because they didn’t get the positive outcome they wanted. Therefore they are less likely to try again next time. But, how do we fix this? One way is errorless learning.

Errorless learning- What’s That?!

To re-inflate our children’s confidence, self worth and value we can start with errorless learning. This is where we set up the environment so that success is inevitable. You will make tasks so easy they are impossible to fail. You will initially guide your child through the whole process and then reinforce them at the end with something they love. Alternatively, you will do most of the task and just get them to do the very last step. Then you will praise and reinforce them as if they did everything on their own.

Yes, at the beginning you’ll have to ‘up the anti’ by reinforcing your child for something you know they can do on their own and something you think they should do without an incentive.

Remember, your child has possibly faced so many negative experiences in the past and tasks are so aversive that they need to come into contact with a high level of reinforcement to gain back the motivation and confidence. To increase a skill or positive behavior, our children need to receive a positive outcome more often than a negative one.

I know what you’re thinking… “But, I want my child to do this because they want to help, not because there’s a reward”. Well, the fact of the matter is that the act of ‘helping’ is just not reinforcing enough for your child at this moment, and that’s okay. Maybe in the future they will develop the empathy and internal feelings that make them feel good enough to help without the reward. When we look at this from a behavioral perspective, feeling good about something can reinforce our behaviors, but this takes time to develop.

For now, you are taking a step back. Think of this process like teaching your child to swim. You are taking them out of the deep pool where they were about to drown and bringing them to the kiddy pool where they can re-learn how to float, kick and breath without sinking to the bottom.

Once your child is floating again (they are tolerating doing part of a task you want them to do), you can start to fade out your support and slowly... very slowly re-introduce them to the deep pool. But, remember you are only going to do this when they have the skills- not before.

If you would like more support to make positive behavior changes and break the failure cycle, book a call to talk with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst!


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