Negative Feedback Sinks In

“That’s wrong – do it again.”

Most teachers know that negative, unconstructive feedback is not the best way to help children learn. Now, a new study pinpoints the approximate age when kids start to learn from their mistakes.

Researchers at Leiden University Institute for Psychological Research in the Netherlands analyzed brain activity in three age groups, the first time such a division has been used in this field of study.

Two children’s groups (8 and 9, 12 and 13) and one adult group (18 to 25) performed computer tasks while a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner measured their brain activity.

In every group, positive feedback triggered high levels of activity in the parts of the brain that regulate behavior and learning. Negative comments, however, generated sharp age differences.

Being told they were wrong didn’t register in the brains of 8- and 9-year-olds at all. The 12- and 13-year-olds processed critical appraisal okay but not very fast or effectively. Adult brains registered their failures quickly and efficiently.

Behavioral psychologists have long known that young children don’t handle adverse feedback well, but until this study they didn’t know precisely when they start to grow out of out it. Questions remain, however, about whether this inability to distill negative information is due to lack of experience or insufficient levels of brain development in the regulatory areas.

Younger age groups are at a level of development where teaching them right from wrong is crucial, but how – and when – that’s done has now become just as important.