Rethinking School Readiness and Empowering Young Children To ‘Fail’ (by Belinda Blecher)

Daunted. Overwhelmed. Petrified. That’s how many children feel when faced with the prospect of trying something new where there is so much room to fail.

Whether it’s tasting a new food, diving into a pool or entering a classroom for the first time, they feel paralysed by the risk of not being the best.

And it’s no wonder. As parents, educators and caregivers, many of us were brought up with the mindset that mistakes were something to be avoided, and creativity was an afterthought to perfectionism.

Mistakes are where the magic happens.

But mistakes are an essential part of learning for everyone – they push adults and children alike out of our comfort zones and show us that ‘stuffing up’ is both inevitable and ok. In order to transform that message and navigate a healthy growth mindset for children, we need to invest in a more colourful emotional wardrobe – one that celebrates a day that has difficult moments.

Just like a healthy plate of food that contains many colours, a healthy day should be filled with a range of emotions and experiences.

As a new school year approaches, let’s think about this within the framework of ‘school readiness’. That term itself, ‘school readiness’, no longer seems accurate. What are children even supposed to be ‘ready’ for? As parents and educators, it feels more helpful to focus on the transition to school and the necessary emotional tools to thrive in this next stage. It is no longer about ‘pincer grip’ and being able to write your name in perfect print. Rather, an important part of school transitioning and how well a child will do, can be determined by how interested they are in what they don’t know rather than being scared by it.

The 3 key capacities to support holistic development.

As children transition to school, we are aiming for holistic development where emotional, social and cognitive development is level and integrated. There are three key capacities that we should focus on to support this state:

  1. The capacity to self-regulate.
  2. The capacity for ambivalence.
  3. The capacity to collaborate.
1. The capacity to self-regulate

A child’s ability to self-regulate is perhaps the most important tool for managing transitions and getting through the school day. This is the ability to have an internal modulator that knows how to land and settle. When children have this internal thermostat, they are able to use their energy to learn rather than using it to hold themselves together.

Internal modulation comes from incidental, ordinary transitions. Children develop this skill by feeling properly engaged with and enjoyed, in an ordered and thoughtful way, in ordinary moments throughout the day. It is not about doing new things. It is about making ordinary moments extraordinary and engaging with our children in a settled, focused manner.

Children pick up on our own restlessness. If we are perpetually doing 10 things at once, we can’t be surprised when they then struggle to settle and land. We need to have downloaded our own internal modulator for our kids to do the same. As we know, children need to feel connected with before they can be directed.

You can help children develop an internal thermostat by:

        • Turning off phones and screens during dinner and bath time. Sit down to eat as a family. The way we take in food and interact at the dinner table can model for children the ‘deliciousness’ of great learning in the classroom.
        • Practising the idea that the quickest way to do something is slowly. Having outside order – e.g. a regular routine of dinner, bath, story, cuddle, bed – facilitates inside order.
        • Creating moments for your children to feel properly enjoyed. This will equip them to enjoy the world and others, which is a very important part of starting school.
2. The capacity for ambivalence

Another predictor of a child’s ability to thrive at school is their capacity for ambivalence – this is the ability to manage things they don’t like as well as the things they do like. The school day will be filled with moments they enjoy and moments they won’t. And their ability to distinguish between needs and wants is imperative to being able to manage the ordinary mess of the classroom that won’t just include pinks and yellows, but also blues and browns and blacks.

To help them distinguish between needs and wants, we should focus on attending to children’s needs, but not their wants as readily. In this way, we can help children have a very clear idea that wants are not needs.

Other ways to help children develop a capacity for ambivalence include:

        • Sharing our own days and highlighting that our days too are multi-coloured and filled with new experiences and things we don’t like.
        • Supporting them in understanding that new experiences can be scary, and that’s ok.
        • Celebrate them for trying new things with interested eyes, rather than aiming for perfection with critical eyes.
3. The capacity to collaborate

Finally, the capacity to collaborate and ask for help without shame is imperative to the learning experience at school.

The new curriculum highlights the importance of group work over rote learning at individual desks. This is both reflective of, and compatible with, the changing world around us. Computers have taken the jobs of rote learners and it is estimated that 85% of the jobs of 2030 haven’t been invented yet. This means that the deeply ‘human’ qualities of collaboration and creativity are now central to the school experience.

We can support children in developing these skills by:

        • Allowing them to witness you asking for help and solving everyday problems as a team.
        • Using your family table as a practice classroom table by making it a place of collaboration, listening, reflection and having fun.
        • Modelling ordinary conflict moments, turn-taking skills and cooperation.

As we begin to prepare children for their transition to school and facilitate holistic development, our parting message should be that they will make glorious, magical and amazing mistakes – mistakes that nobody has ever made before.


To support children in building resilience and taking safe risks, Belinda has written a fabulous book, Magic Mistakes. As Belinda explains, ‘The idea for writing it came from the high levels of anxiety I have been seeing in children leading up to starting school, particularly around perfectionism. My aim was to take the provision of emotional support out of the clinical setting and create an accessible tool for parents, caregivers and educators to help children name and reframe their everyday, ordinary anxieties.’

About Belinda Blecher

Belinda Blecher trained as a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. In London, Belinda worked at the Royal Free Teaching Hospital for 8 years in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department. After arriving in Sydney in 2004, Belinda worked both at Sydney Children’s Hospital and as the senior clinician at the Early Intervention Program of the Benevolent Society.

Belinda currently runs a preschool consultancy service for early years educators, as well as a private child and adolescent psychology practice.
Belinda has lectured at the Institute of Psychiatry in Sydney and has run seminars for mental health professionals​ in numerous cities around Australia on working clinically with children under 5 years old.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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