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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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