Helping Your Pre-Schooler With Math-Avoid Learned Mistakes

Now that you are actively working with your preschooler's math and language skills, you are discovering that some learning is easy and almost immediate while other learning is difficult and needs repetition. Sometimes LOTS of repetition! One important thing you need to understand, though, is that "unlearning" a mistake is very difficult and needs to be avoided at all costs.
Please understand that I am not saying your child must not make mistakes. In reality, mistakes are a necessary part of learning. What I am referring to is avoiding LEARNED mistakes. It is important that a mistake not be repeated without correction so many times that it becomes learned.
Researchers have known for decades that the brain easily learns survival-related skills, like touching a hot stove only once. The brain's sole purpose is survival, and learning non-survival-related skills is difficult for the brain. In the second article of this series: "7 Things you Must Always Do," item #7 discusses the importance of using "brain-friendly" techniques with your child, and it lists many different examples of such techniques. One of those techniques is frequent review--often called practice or repetition.
Researchers agree that repetition is necessary for many types of learning to occur but the recommended amount of repetition has changed considerably over the years. When I began teaching in 1972, educators believed a skill could be learned with only 4 to 7 repetitions. More recent brain researchers have adjusted the figure much higher. It is now believed that 20 to 50 repetitions are necessary for learning to occur.
Fortunately, preschoolers LOVE repetition. They love reading the same books, playing the same games, and singing the same songs over and over again; and each repetition moves skills, vocabulary, and facts closer to being learned. However, a practiced mistake can become a learned mistake and a learned mistake is very difficult to eliminate. It can take HUNDREDS of correct repetitions to "unlearn" a learned mistake. Yes, that says HUNDREDS of correct repetitions! If you have ever tried to "fix" a bad habit, you know just how true this is.
So what does this mean for you? It means that you must always supervise what your preschooler does, and lovingly correct mistakes as they happen--because they WILL happen. Never criticize your child for a mistake. Gently direct them to discover the correct response and reward it. It also means you NEVER have your child work on worksheets, workbooks, smartphone apps, or computer programs without your very close supervision. All of these tools make practicing mistakes far too easy. Ideally, you don't ever use ANY of these things with a preschooler at all, but that ia a topic for another day.
Your child's learning needs to be directed by you. You can prevent learned mistakes from ever happening. Yes, you are THAT important!
Shirley Slick, "The Slick Tips Lady," is a retired math teacher who generally writes about mathematics education and animal welfare/rescues. Her education website is at Her animal welfare website is at She applies her psychology degree in all aspects of life, especially childhood education, mental illness, and LBGT issues. Contact information can be found at either website.
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