Mistakes are an Opportunity to Learn

The undisciplined child enters into discipline by working in the company of others; not by being told he is naughty. Discipline is, there- fore, primarily a learning experience and less a punitive experience if appropriately dealt with. (Montessori, 1995)

Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art form.  According to legend the art form was discovered by mistake when a shogun warrior broke a cherished tea bowl.   The tea bowl was repaired by a local artisan using a golden adhesive.  The resulting structure was not only stunning and unique, but stronger and more valuable than the original.  Kitsugi pottery is beutiful, and its symbolism reminds us of the true value of our mistakes and imperfections.  A good friend once said, “Experience isn’t the best teacher.  It’s the only teacher.” 

Montessori children make mistakes all day long.  A Montessori classroom is like a laboratory where children are given the freedom to learn from their own discovery in a prepared environment that not only encourages but requires that they make mistakes in order to learn. This is the foundational (and encouraging and optimistic) principle behind Montessori’s self-correcting materials. The idea that mistakes are opportunities to learn is rooted in trust for the child and human nature itself — a trust that the child wants to learn and to discover the world around him.  

That said, it is not difficult to see academic mistakes as opportunities to learn and develop.  A mistake using the Stamp Game that is then corrected can be met with trust and patience by an observing adult without too much difficulty. The adult might allow children to correct mistakes themselves, if they are able, or he might circle back and give another lesson. As a result, Montessori children tend to be very confident in taking on new challenges and comfortable learning from their academic mistakes. But what about behavioral mistakes? All of us would like to think that we’d respond as patiently to a mistake with the Stamp Game as we would when a child misbehaves, but the truth is that it’s much more difficult.

Even though children misbehave because they are discouraged, their misbehavior can be very unattractive and hurtful. It can include hitting, teasing, excluding, rebellion, obstinacy, destruction of property, or just overall disrespect. In the heat of the moment, especially if a child’s behavior has been hurtful and repetitive, not many of us see the situation as an opportunity to learn how to develop lifelong social skills. It is difficult to see the discouraged child through their veil of misbehavior — and to be encouraging during these moments. Learning and practicing skills to achieve this goal is a primary focus of Positive Discipline in the Montessori classroom. Mainly, instead of punishing children for mistakes, we involve children in finding solutions to fix the mistake.

Whether a child is three or thirteen, they are engaged in the lifelong process of learning how to develop relationships, how to interact respect- fully with each other, how to treat friends, what to do when their feelings are hurt, how to ask for help, how to appropriately tell a friend “no,” what to do when a friend says “no” to them, etc. They learn these and other social skills by doing. They misbehave, make mistakes, and they try again. Children thrive in an environment where they do not experience shame, blame, and humiliation when they misbehave. Their natural desire to cooperate and contribute is nurtured and developed when adults see behavior mistakes as an opportunity to learn. This understanding can help us to meet misbehavior with understanding.  And, understanding should not be confused with permisiveness.  The word discipline comes from the latin word discipulina, which means “to learn”.  Effective discipline, or discipline that teaches, is both kind and firm.

Research has found that mistakes are beneficial to learning, but only when the learner is supported in an encouraging, safe way. Mistakes can encourage complex thinking, stimulate further education and growth, and  can lead to deeper understandings. (Metcalfe, 2017)

So, what does a social-emotional environment that is consistent, safe and allows children to learn from their mistakes without the fear of shame or humiliation look like?  Here is a glimpse of that classroom:

  • Adults understand the reasons children misbehave, and see mistakes as opportunities to learn;
  • Children observe adults who freely admit their mistakes and correct them openly;
  • Adults understand that social skills are learned, and take time for training through direct teaching of Grace and Courtesy and social skills;
  • Children are involved in problem-solving, both individual and community;
  • Adult interactions are both kind and firm;
  • Children experience a respectful, consistent, and predictable approach to discipline, with clear expectations and consistent, supportive follow-through by the adults.

These ideas are not new to Montessorians.  But, just like our approach to the physical environment (materials, lessons, room design) our approach to the social-emotional relational environment involves a clear “how to” method, intentionality, planning and practice.  And of course, practice is just a nice way to say that our mistakes, too, are an opportunity to learn.  None of us will ever achieve perfection in our approach to discipline.  Human behavior is messy business.   But, with practice, and a consistent approach to discipline, comes progress and peaceful classrooms.

Until next time…


Montessori, M. (1995). The absorbent mind 1995. Henry Holt.

Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 465–489. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044022


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About the Author

Picture of Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a trainer, consultant and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.


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